This fascinating book introduces the world of British prisons during a time when ideas regarding their purpose and use had not yet been cemented. Chapter 1 gives an overview of prison history and prison buildings. The next chapter tells the story of the prison reform sweeping the country during the 18th century. This was a time when prison building boomed.
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The Victorians had two penal theories: the separate system where everyone had their own cells and the Silent system, where no conversation was allowed. The first eventually won out, and future prisons were built based on individual rather than large group cells.
Chapter 4 gives the history of the development of a national penal system dating from the 1823 gaol act and the appointment of inspectors of prisons in 1835. The first prisons built by the central government came into being during the 1820s. The difference between convict prisons and penal servitude is explained.
In another chapter life in prison is looked at, from the beginning bath ritual through complete indoctrination into the system. Boiled meat, potatoes, brown bread, gruel, and cocoa were the extent of the diet of most prisoners.
Prison officers and their daily routines, often as harsh as that of the prisoners themselves, are explored. Women and children were a different situation. Women criminals were thought to have serious psychological disorders and were often treated as lunatics.
Further reading and places to visit round out this look at the prison world of the 19th century.
Author Trevor May is a professional historian who retired from the University of Hertfordshire in 1993. He has written over a dozen books on social and economic history topics, including seven Shire Albums. He lives in Devon.
Victorian and Edwardian Prisons
by Trevor May
Published Spring 2006
40 pages; illustrations and black and white photographs
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