A regime next only to death

English Local Prisons 1860-1900
September 15, 1995

Although much has been written in recent years on the history of crime and punishment, less attention has been paid to the administrative machinery of the penal apparatus, its relationship to penal objectives and the daily reality of imprisonment. While the government-controlled convict prisons have been examined in some detail, the local prisons of the Victorian era have been comparatively neglected. This is the subject of Sean McConville's magnum opus, A History of English Prison Administration. Whereas his first, well received, volume, which grew out of his doctoral thesis which I supervised, encompassed within 450 pages the period between 1750 and 1877, and dealt with both convict and local prisons, this second volume is far narrower in scope. It deals with local prisons only, covering the 40-year period from 1860 to the end of the century. Yet this massive, impressive, book is, in several ways, more intellectually satisfying than its predecessor. The approach is also more complex: in part narrative, in part analytical, in part biographical. It is shaped by an overriding theme: the creation and consequences of a uniform, centrally administered, repressive, and highly secretive system of local imprisonment. It is a fascinating story, told elegantly but in enormous detail; the product of prodigious industry and an extraordinarily wide range of sources. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in their influential English Prisons Under Local Government, devoted about 50 pages to the period covered by Sean McConville in his densely packed volume.

Following an historiographical introduction, the book begins with three lengthy chapters devoted to the Fourth Earl of Carnarvon. The House of Lords Committee on Gaols and Houses of Correction in 1863, of which he was chairman, stated that the local prisons should have both a uniformly administered and deterrent regime. In all previous prison histories Carnarvon has been a shadowy figure. But here McConville provides us with a mini-biography of Carnarvon, which reveals a high minded aristocrat wedded to utilitarian social thought. In the past no one has asked how Carnarvon came to occupy the chair of a major parliamentary inquiry, what ideas and experiences he brought with him, what his personal agenda was, and how he set about achieving his objectives. He emerges as a highly skilled manipulator: "He treated his inquiry like a theatrical production," writes McConville. "He wrote the script, designed the sets, chose the players and directed their delivery, and, to carry the metaphor further, this was the only show in town."

A similar semi-biographical account is given of the background and ideas of Sir Edmund Du Cane, the chairman of directors of convict prisons, who was also to take over the local prisons after they came under central government control in 1877. It was "his fate I to take up the harsh penal regime I and by effective administration realise its full punitive potential". Much has already been written about him and the overall picture McConville paints of this "constitutional illiterate", who was instinctively hostile to local magisterial influence, does not change fundamentally what can be gathered from several other sources. But this synthesis is much richer in detail than anything published before. We are given a blow by blow account of this belligerent, obsessive and avaricious autocrat's battles with the local magistracy, civil servants and home secretaries. There is the fascinating story of his role in bringing about nationalisation of local prisons in 1877 and the false prospectus of economy and effectiveness which he put forward to achieve it. "Had his arena been the stock market rather than Parliament, and his gulls private investors rather than the taxpayer, du Cane might have been liable to criminal charges for flotation on a fraudulent or deceitful prospectus." Indeed, in McConville's view his "mathematics of power and authority were fundamentally flawed", for he found it impossible to consult, only to command. He was thus eventually by-passed, and isolated by the increasingly powerful men whom civil service reform had brought to the Home Office.

The central chapters provide graphic details of a regime "next only to death". Take for example the uniform application of the treadmill. A prisoner had to ascend 8,640 feet in six hours at 32 feet a minute, done in 15-minute spells with a five-minute rest in between; a formidable task for the Victorian poor. He explains why unproductive labour was chosen in preference to productive work and why water closets were removed from the cells. This was not for punishment but for sanitary reasons (the gases from the sewers came up through these primitive toilets to pervade the prison and cause much sickness). The ghastliness of the diet is dissected in relation both to considerations of economy and the desire to make prison even less desirable than the workhouse. He even provides a modern nutritionist's assessment: "a diet to keep you alive, but not to make life worth living". A lengthy chapter is devoted to attitudes towards, and regimes devised for, special categories: women, juveniles, debtors, remand prisoners and "first class misdemeanants", those regarded as not truly criminal.

A problem in writing the history of prisons is that the evidence is inevitably seen "top down", largely from the perspective of officialdom. Very few prisoners recorded their experiences, and those that did, like the fiery radical John Burns, did so largely for political purposes. This is partly redressed by evidence from reported scandals, again described in fascinating detail: allegations of deaths through starvation and cold; reports of appalling behaviour by hangmen; botched hangings - decapitations here and a survival there. Chairman Du Cane refused ever to accept the blame.

Two chapters are devoted to the futile attempts of the local magistracy to regain some of the powers they lost when the prisons were nationalised. They failed even to do the one important task left to them: to be effective public watchdogs.

The Gladstone Committee of 1895 has been lionised as the watershed between the rigid and deterrent Victorian system of Du Cane and the modern penological principles of individualised treatment and reformation. Examining the committee's work afresh from an administrative angle, Sean McConville provides a different perspective. He argues that from this point of view it had unsatisfactory terms of reference; its method of collecting evidence was badly co-ordinated; and the chairman, Herbert Gladstone, was not up to the job. The report is characterised as evasive, indecisive, disjointed and little related to the evidence received: the final draft reflecting "the committee's self-indulgent, meandering and lackadaisical procedures". The book ends by arguing convincingly that the fundamental objective of central administration was at last achieved through the Prisons Act of 1898, which gave to the prison commissioners rather than to Parliament the power to make the prison rules.

While this volume is not written as a "work of reference", it will naturally become one, especially as the price is monstrously high. It contains very detailed accounts and analyses of all the major commissions of enquiry, parliamentary debates, the passage of Bills through all their stages, and summaries of influential articles. Most welcome are the very full accounts of the backgrounds, experiences, ideas and interests which the major players in this history brought to their tasks. There is an excellent bibliography and index. What is surprising, and a tribute to the author, is that such a detailed work has been made so readable: spiced as it with pleasing turns of phrase, insightful summaries and apt conclusions. Scholars will turn to this work for years to come.

Roger Hood is director of the centre for criminological research, University of Oxford.

English Local Prisons 1860-1900

Author - Sean McConville
ISBN - 0 415 03295 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £150.00
Pages - 819

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