The state of our prisons in 1788

As you do, we have just stumbled upon a book titled ‘An Account of Prisons and Houses of Correction in the Midland Circuit’, which provides details of the conditions within the prisons following a review carried out by John Howard Esq., prison reformer, on behalf of the Duke of Montagu, so we thought we would share some bits with you.


Howard’s aim was to review the physical condition of the prisons, and the benefits or otherwise of the prisoners themselves.

The morals of prisoners were at this time as much neglected as their health. Idleness, drunkenness and all kinds of vice, were suffered to continue in such a manner as to confirm old offenders in their bad practices, and to render it almost certain, that the minds of those who were confined for their first faults, would be corrupted instead of being corrected, by their imprisonment.

Hogarth, William; A Rake's Progress: 7. The Rake in Prison; Sir John Soane's Museum;
Hogarth, William; A Rake’s Progress: 7. The Rake in Prison; Sir John Soane’s Museum

Howard made a series of recommendations regarding prisons including these:

Every prison be white-washed at least once every year, and that this be done twice in prisons which are much crowded.

That a pump and plentiful supply of water be provided, and that every part of the prison be kept as clean as possible.

That every prison be supplied with a warm and cold bath, or commodious bathing tubs, and that the prisoners be indulged in the use of such baths, with a proper allowance of soap and the use of towels.

That attention be paid to the sewers in order to render them as little offensive as possible.

That great care be taken, that as perfect a separation as possible be made of the following classes of prisoners. That felons be kept entirely separate from debtors; men from women’ old offenders from young beginners; convicts from those who have not yet been tried.

That all prisoners, except debtors be clothed on their admission with a prison uniform and that their own clothes be returned to them when they are brought to trial or are dismissed.

That care be taken that the prisoners are properly supplied with food, and their allowance not deficient, either in weight or quality.

He also recommended that gaolers were to be  paid a proper salary, that religious services take place and that no swearing was to be permitted. A surgeon or apothecary be appointed to tend to the sick. That attention be paid to the prisoners on their discharge and that, if possible some means be pointed out to them by which they may be enabled to gain a livelihood in an honest manner.

Thomson, W.; The Upper Condemned Cell at Newgate Prison, London, on the Morning of the Execution of Henry Fauntleroy; Museum of London;
Thomson, W.; The Upper Condemned Cell at Newgate Prison, London, on the Morning of the Execution of Henry Fauntleroy; Museum of London

The book provides brief details of the finding at some of the prisons, so we thought we would share a few of these with you:

County Bridewell – Warwick

A new prison is finished and occupied. There are separate apartments and courts with water, for men and women; and vagrants have a court and apartments separate from the other prisoners. Allowance, as in a gaol.

No coals: no employment at present; but a long room, ten feet and a half wide is provided, with looms, and other materials for work.

1788, Feb. 15        Prisoners – 10.

Birmingham Town Gaol

The court is now paved with broad stones, but dirty with fowls. There is only one dayroom for both sexes, over the door of which there is impudently painted ‘Universal Academy’. Neither the act for preserving the health of prisoners, nor clauses against spirituous liquors are hung up. The gaoler has no salary, but still a licence for beer.

1788, Feb. 14                Prisoners – 13.

British (English) School; Daniel Lambert (1770-1809); Compton Verney;
British (English) School; Daniel Lambert (1770-1809), Keeper of Leicester Gaol around 1788; Compton Verney

Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire

Two rooms. No court: no water. Keeper’s salary only £4

1788 Aug. 7.                     No prisoners.

Tideswell, Derbyshire

An old house lately purchased. Prisoner were formerly confined in a room in the inn keeper’s public house. No allowance, keeper’s salary £20

1788, Aug 3.      No prisoners.

County Gaol at Nottingham

At the entrance is this inscription on a board ‘No ale, nor any sort of liquor sold within the prison’. Gaoler’s salary now £140. The prison too small. The debtors in three rooms, pay 2s a week each, though two in a bed. They who can pay only 6d are in two rooms below, confined with such felons as pay 2s a week. The other felons lie in two dark, offensive dungeons, down thirty-six steps called pits, which are never white-washed.

Another dungeon in 1787 was occupied by a man sentenced to two years solitary confinement. The town ‘transports’ and criminals are here confined with the county felons, which it may be hoped the magistrates will soon rectify. The room used for a chapel was too close, though when I was there, only one debtor attended the service. Allowance to felons now 1 and a half pence in bread and a half penny in money. Five of the felons were county, and give town convicts.

1787, Oct 23,    Debtors       9

                          Felons etc. 21

1788, Aug 6,     Debtors   12

                          Felons etc. 10

County Bridewell, Folkingham, Lincolnshire

No alteration in this offensive prison. Court not secure. Prisoners locked up. No water: no employment. Keeper’s salary £40 out of which he maintains (of starves) his prisoners.

1788, Jan. 17,   Prisoners 3

Lincoln City and County Gaol

No alteration. Through the window of the two damp cells, both men and women freely converse with idle people in the street, who often supply them with spirituous liquors till they are intoxicated. No court: no sewers: no water accessible to the prisoners. Gaoler’s salary augments £20 in lieu of the tap.

1788, Jan 16   Debtors none. Felons etc. 5

County Gaol at Northampton

Gaoler’s salary £200, out of which he is to give every prisoner three pints of small beer a day.

In the walls of the felons court there are now apertures for air. The prison clean as usual. The new room for the sick is over the Bridewell, with iron bedsteads and proper bedding. The bread allowance to felons is a fourpenny loaf every other day (weight 3lb 2oz). County convicts 2s 6d a week.

1787, Oct 27 Debtors 9.  Felons etc. 20.

Featured Image

The Humours of the Fleet. Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library


13 thoughts on “The state of our prisons in 1788

  1. John Anderson

    I am researching an ancestor (Mary Hook) who was convicted of theft (10 guineas), sentenced to death, respited, pardoned and transported in 1788-89. She appears in the lists (Common Side) of Newgate between April 1788 and Mar 1789, before being loaded aboard the Lady Juliana and sent to Australia, Her parents were in Lancashire. I am particularly interested in her daily life during her incarceration. Such details as food, bedding, clothing, etc. I think I have a rough idea but I would like any details that could be provided from your own knowledge or internet links. I have been researching for about four years and am now at the stage of writing it up.
    Thank you.


    1. Sarah Murden

      I presume you’re aware of her crime – it appears that Mary, who was a servant of Sarah Allen, was convicted of stealing 8 guineas and 2 half guineas plus wearing apparel, namely a silk cloak according to the Caledonian Mercury 19 May 1788.

      The fact that she was a servant meant that she would be in the common side of the prison i.e. the side for people with no money to buy themselves any comforts, so given her status she would have received the minimal amount of food, many were naked and shackled, so you can imagine her life would have been dreadful. Until Howard’s reforms, prisons were effectively a ‘dumping ground’ for felons rather than places for rehabilitation. You might find this book useful to read – The Chronicles of Newgate (Complete) By Arthur George Frederick Griffiths.


      1. John Anderson

        Hello Sarah,
        Thank you for taking the time to reply. Yes, I am aware of her crime and her subsequent fate. In fact I have reams of information about her. What I lack is detail to fill in t he blanks and bring her to life. I am aware of conditions within Newgate but I am trying to bring together all the bits I have in order to bring life to this figure I know about. I know she was in the common side because you could not pay for the alternative. What I am seeking is a blow by blow description of her admission to prison and her daily life. Was she subject to an admission fee? What did she get to eat every day. Would she have been subject to sexual advances from the guards?
        I am currently writing a manuscript that may become a (private) book. As I write down the many facts I have on Mary and her life, these gaps make themselves known. Many people do ancestry research in order to construct a huge family tree. I am interested only in the main branches (primarily grandparents) and trying to bring them to life.


          1. John Anderson

            Hi Sarah, Would you happen to know when a sentence expired when one has been sentenced to death, was respited and then sent to Australia for seven years; is it 7 years after the original sentence of death or dated from the transportation sentence?


          2. Sarah Murden

            Hi John
            Sentence would be handed down at court and usually defined as either 7 or 14 years according to the crime committed. For some they would not actually have served their in Australia though as they would be kept on prison hulks at the UK ports, but if they made it to Australia then it would be the remainder of the 7 or 14 years that would be spent there. For some, whilst their sentence may initially been that of death, appeal was possible and it could be reduced to transportation instead. I’m not absolutely certain, but I think it would have been from the date of the original conviction. It’s a really good question and I think it would be necessary to look at a few cases where sentence was amended and assuming they were well behaved, their actual end date to be sure though.


          3. John Anderson

            Thanks Sarah. My best guess was from the date of the original sentence. My reason for asking is that I can find nothing to indicate the end of my ancestor’s sentence, and so I was wanting to work it out based on the date of sentencing or from the date of the new sentence. There was more than a year between the two, so it is relevant.


          4. Sarah Murden

            Without doing some sort of analysis of cases it’s really hard know quite how rigidly they stuck to the dates. When prisoners left the UK the details of their crime and the period of sentence would usually go with them to Australia, but quite what happened from then on who knows. For most pardons or tickets of leave I’m pretty sure it provides details of the date of conviction in UK and the sentence length. Have you found your ancestors records i.e. UK sentence and details once in Australia?


          5. John Anderson

            I have very comprehensive records for the trial, incarceration (week by week records from Newgate), transportation on the Lady Juliana, transfer to Norfolk Island, etc, but I do not have and record of a ticket of leave, pardon, etc. The 1806 muster shows Free by Servitude, but her 7 years were up long before that. Curiously, in the 1841 census she was claiming to have arrived free. I guess she thought that 50 years on nobody would know or care.
            In a previous post of 20 Nov you advised me to check some information in the London Met Archives. Am I correct in thinking that they cannot be accessed from here (Australia). What I read seemed to indicate that one needed to visit.
            Thank you once again for your interest and information.


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