How to find your prison staff ancestors

Welcome to the Prison History guide on where to find records on prison staff of the 19th Century

Yet before we get on to accessing prison staff records, here’s some background on how these records changed due to the increasing professionalisation of prison work…

Many family historians who get in touch with us at Prison History are looking for nominal records on prisoners.

However, as seen on Episode Four of Series 16 of Who Do You Think You Are?, some people, like Kate Winslet, have prison officers in their family tree.

This might not be as unusual as you would first think. As the 19th Century Prisons Database shows, until 1877 there were over one hundred local prisons which were operational in any given year. And before the mid-1830s, there were more than 250 prisons in use in England alone.

Prisons as a source of work

This geographical spread meant that many prisons offered a form of local employment in regional towns.

It must be said that staff numbers were typically low as most local prisons employed no more than 10 people. Yet the turnover at many institutions, especially among subordinate staff (i.e. prison warders or turnkeys), could be high. Also, as a result of the efforts of Elizabeth Fry – ensuring that female prisoners were under the care of female staff – prisons presented an opportunity for the employment of women.

Elizabeth Fry for Prison Staff blog on Prison History

Wood engraving of Elizabeth Gurney Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate Prison, London. Credit: Jerry Barrett, 1824-1906 [CC BY 4.0]

It was common for some local prisons to operate rather like a family business. The governor’s wife acted as matron, his son as a deputy governor, chief turnkey or ordinary warder, and his daughter as an assistant to the matron. Some governors’ children even filled the role of schoolmaster or schoolmistress. In 1849, prison inspector Frederic Hill found that at Ely Gaol in Cambridge, the governor’s daughter, ‘a little girl of 11 years old’, had been employed to teach the female prisoners to read and write.

Also, the employment of prisoners in a variety of roles, including as wardsmen and teachers, was fairly common until the 1839 Prisons Act. This act forbade any prisoner to hold a position of responsibility or trust. Yet the practice continued at a few local prisons where budgets were tight. But by the mid-1860s it was virtually unheard of. Still, it is important to acknowledge that prisoners continued to perform more menial tasks such as cleaning, whitewashing, and cooking, at both local and convict prisons for the remainder of the century.

Professionalisation of prison staff

The prohibition on the employment of prisoners also coincided with attempts to transform prison officers into moral agents in the context of the promotion of the separate system of discipline and its increased emphasis on the need to ‘reform’ prisoners.

Discipline among subordinate staff in local and convict prisons had been a longstanding problem. Low pay and long hours did not make the job of prison warder attractive. Also, like the ‘new police’, warders were typically drawn from the same communities as the prisoners they were employed to guard. Corruption was rife.

Prison Staff - from Henry Mayhew, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London, 1862)

From Henry Mayhew, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London, 1862), p. 155

From the 1830s and 1840s then, prison staff were subjected to greater surveillance and regulation. ‘Tell-tale’ clocks were introduced, first at Pentonville before spreading to other convict and local institutions, to ensure that officers completed their patrols. Fines and suspensions were also used, in addition to dismissal, to combat idleness, disobedience, neglect to communicate orders, and fraternisation with prisoners.

Militarisation and centralisation

Disillusionment with reformatory discipline meant that at convict prisons emphasis on the religious credentials of officers was replaced by a preference for the employment of former military personnel who could understand and execute orders, as well as supervise men. This led to the adoption of a para-military staff structure on the establishment of the convict prison service in 1850. At the same time (i.e. 1851), uniform pay scales, pensions and other allowances were introduced for staff.

Dartmoor Prison Gate

Officers at the gate of HMP Dartmoor, c.1910 – with kind permission of David Worth

Still, the hours remained long. Officers were obliged to work on Sundays, and, as subjected to compulsory messing, were isolated from family life. Annual leave entitlements were granted in 1860, and long hours gradually reduced from 1874 onwards.

Similar structures heralding the achievement of the professionalisation of staff in local prisons were only introduced after centralisation in 1877. The act of bringing all local prisons under the authority of central government led to the closure of many smaller prisons. Many staff were discharged from service as a result.

The creation of a local prison service changed the relationship between the prison and the local community. Staff recruited to the service were transferred between institutions as their careers developed and to cater to the staffing needs of the system. The local prison was no longer a source of ‘local employment’.


Accessing and using prison staff records

Although professionalisation in both the convict and local prison sectors brought into being new systems of record-keeping on prison staff, there are several significant avenues of research for those wanting to know more about prison officers, and to search for ancestors, in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Parliamentary Papers

All local prisons which came under the jurisdiction of the 1823 Gaol Act were required to submit annual returns to the Home Secretary. These were subsequently published as Parliamentary Papers. Some returns included printed copies of the business of the Quarter or borough sessions relating to prison administration, including reports from senior prison officers. Some Schedule B Returns (the form that governors were required to complete for the Home Office) included lists of staff together with information on salaries. Similarly, some prison inspectors included information on staff (names and salaries) in their reports on penal institutions from 1835 onwards. This was done either through diligence or as a means of padding!

Annual reports produced by the Millbank Management Committee are disappointingly brief until the 1840s. However, they do contain the identities of senior officers. Similarly, any disclosures of the identities of turnkeys or warders in the much more detailed annual reports of Parkhurst and Pentonville for the late 1830s and 1840s will be serendipitous. For there are no regular lists. Yet annual reports produced by Convict Prison Directors do include summaries of the state of discipline among subordinate staff. Again though few names of individuals are provided. From c.1860, details of officers transferred between prisons are sometimes provided.

Quarter Sessions and borough sessions

The 1823 Gaol Act also required that all senior officers in local prisons submit reports to their local prison authority. Governors did so quarterly while it was annual for chaplains and surgeons. In the case of county prisons, this was the Quarter Sessions court. For borough prisons, it was the borough sessions magistrates or town council.

Anglesey Easter Quarter Sessions. Source: National Library of Wales [Public domain]

Anglesey Easter Quarter Sessions. Source: National Library of Wales [Public domain]

These reports not only shed light on the duties of senior officers in the local prison but also provide the identities of those senior officers. They even sometimes mention subordinate officers. Records of the Quarter Sessions or borough sessions can be found in local record offices.

Local prison authorities, rather than senior officers such as governors, retained control over the appointment of staff. And so, alongside the reports of senior officers, Quarter Sessions and borough sessions records will also contain details of staff appointments in local prisons. In some cases, detailed records of appointment procedures survive. Quarter Sessions records held at Lincolnshire Archives, for example, have several bundles of letters from applicants for roles such as chaplain, schoolmaster, schoolmistress, matron, and turnkey, as well as copies of the job advertisements. Some similar information on the appointment of staff in convict prisons is scattered throughout the Home Office files of prison correspondence and papers kept at The National Archives (HO20, HO21 and HO22).

Reports of Visiting Committees

Magistrates from Quarter and borough sessions formed Visiting Committees to inspect local prisons at regular intervals. They did this as a safeguard against corruption by senior officers. Similarly, management boards were established for convict prisons, the members of which acted as ‘visitors’ in turn.

Commissioners' Visiting Book from Pentonville Prison, The National Archives, PCOM 2/90

Commissioners’ Visiting Book from Pentonville Prison, The National Archives, PCOM 2/90. The entry dated 21 November 1853 refers to the insubordination and disobedience of Warder William Wood who is punished with a fine of 10 shillings (Reproduced with permission of The National Archives).

Reports of Visiting Committees often refer to individual members of prison staff. These reports, as well as visitors’ books and journals are often bundled with the records of the local prison authority. Visitors’ books for Pentonville, spanning the period 1843 to 1885 (in the first couple decades at least) frequently give the names of warders who reported prisoners for infractions of discipline, or who were themselves accused of insubordination or disobedience.

Senior officer journals

Journals kept by senior officers of local and convict prisons also contain names of subordinate officers. Written by governors, chaplains and surgeons they give an account of important events at the prison each day. Kate Winslet’s three-times-great grandfather, William Colquhoun, featured in the daily journal kept by the governor at Dartmoor Convict Prison. This not only confirmed his employment at the prison but gave Kate an idea of the types of duties he was expected to perform.

Registers of prison staff

Few prison staff registers survive from the nineteenth century. Those that do seem to have been a consequence of the professionalisation of staff and the creation of a ‘prison service’. For example, registers for Chatham Convict Prison and Portland Convict Prison begin after the formation of the convict prison directorate. None survive for convict prisons before this date. And the staff registers for these prisons are identical. This suggests that all convict prisons conformed to systems of record-keeping dictated and designed by the Home Office.

Chatham Convict Prison, Register of Staff, 1847-69, p. 31, The National Archives, PCOM 2/367 (Reproduced with permission of The National Archives).

Chatham Convict Prison, Register of Staff, 1847-69, p. 31, The National Archives, PCOM 2/367 (Reproduced with permission of The National Archives).

Convict prison staff registers are organised by job title or rank, rather than by date – so for example, all schoolmasters who served at the prison appear on one page. The registers provide the following information about staff:

  • Name
  • Date of appointment in the service
  • Date of joining the prison
  • Age at appointment
  • Rate of pay on appointment
  • Increases in pay
  • Record of promotions
  • Allowances and extra salary
  • Date of removal from service
  • and sometimes information about transfers between institutions

Be aware of stretched dates

All registers of staff employed in local prisons post-date centralisation. However, many include staff who were appointed before 1877. So dates used in catalogue descriptions of these registers are often stretched to reflect this and so do not refer to the dates in which the register was in use. You have been warned!

For example, the covering dates for staff registers from HMP Wakefield are given as 1840-1913 in the West Yorkshire Archive Service catalogue. In fact, the first book begins in 1878 but includes some staff who had been appointed as early as 1840. Both the format and information included in most surviving local prison staff registers are almost identical to those used for the convict prison service. This demonstrates the extent to which the latter informed the establishment of the local prisons service after 1877.

Prison Staff Appointment books

Finally, The National Archives holds three Prison Staff Appointment books kept by the Home Office between 1887 and 1898 (HO 160). These contain out-letters relating to the appointment, transfer between institutions, promotion and dismissal of prison staff. They are not indexed, are incomplete and do not provide any personal information about prison officers. But they can be used to shed valuable light on the careers of men and women in the prison service – convict and local – at the end of the nineteenth century.


Want to find out more about prison officers?

Do you have a prison officer in your family tree? The 19th Century Prisons database contains information surviving prison staff records. Search for a particular prison, or browse records tagged as Staff, Management or Daily Business.

We hope this helps you in your quest to find out about your prison staff ancestors

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