Locked In: Regency Prisons, Gaols and Hulks

What Were Regency Prisons Like?

Edward & I had a delightful morng for our drive there [Canterbury], I enjoyed it thoroughly, but the Day turned off before we were ready, &  we came home in some rain & the apprehension of a great deal. It has not done us any harm, however.--He went to inspect the Gaol, as a visiting Magistrate, & took me with him.--I was gratified--& went through all the feelings which People must go through, I think in visiting such a building. Jane Austen to Cassandra Godmersham Park Wednesday, November 3, 1813
Prison, during the late Georgian and Regency eras was a grim prospect. In an age when it was possible to be imprisoned and even executed for stealing an article worth a shilling, prison was likely to be a very uncomfortable place, indeed. Jane Austen, it seems, was familiar with the prisons of her age, visiting Canterbury Gaol in 1813 with her Magistrate brother. A closer opportunity for incarceration had arisen 1799, when she faced the prospect of keeping her aunt, Jane Leigh-Perrot company while she awaited trial for the theft of some lace. Mrs. Leigh-Perrot claimed innocence of the theft, feeling she was the victim of a blackmail attempt, and remained in custody (in the jailor’s home, however, as a courtesy to her…and her husband’s deep pockets) until her trial where she faced the threat of the gallows or transportation if convicted.  Jane’s services were not required, however, and her aunt was cleared of wrongdoing, but it was a narrow miss. Anyone owing money was also liable to be arrested and sent to a debtor’s prison until the money was paid. It was often difficult, if not impossible, to obtain enough money to repay even a small debt. Some of the unfortunate debtors remained for months or even years in conditions unworthy of a civilized country. In stories by authors such as Charles Dickens, we may read accounts of the shocking state of such prisons in London and elsewhere during the first half of the 19th century.  Prisoners guilty of serious crimes often had iron rings fastened around their ankles and attached to a chain around their waists. These terrible ‘irons’ as they were called, were riveted together and the unhappy wrong-doer wore them, day and night, until he or she was released or died.  Sometimes the chains were attached to an iron ring cemented into the wall, and it required a blacksmith to remove them. Not all prisons were so bad. In about 1820, it was not as dreadful to be a prisoner in Manchester as it was in Carlisle: Edinburgh prisons were probably a little better than either of them. In York, wretched prisoners were heavily loaded with irons and were almost entirely without clothing. In some prisons, the inmates had to live, if they managed to survive at all, on less than two-penny-worth of bread a day: in others they could eat an occasional meal of soup and beef and potatoes. It all depended on the governor of the prison. A closer look at life in Regency prisons can be found in Kristine Hugh’s, Everyday Life in the Regency and Victorian England, “Throughout England, prisons before the nineteenth century consisted of either local gaols or, fewer still, houses of correction capable of housing a larger prison population. An idea of the treatment received by prisoners in these local jails can be gotten by looking at London’s Gaol, the main criminal prison in the city. Typically, prisoners were made to pay garnish, or fees, to the prison keeper for everything necessary to survival, including clean water, food, clothing, bedding, and better accommodations. This last was necessary because prisoners were housed in dank, dark cells with upward of ten prisoners in each. Much more often, cells were so tightly packed by prisoners that there was no space for beds of any sort, and they slept on a layer of straw laid over the stone floor. This straw was rarely changed. These fees were paid from any money the prisoner might have had upon him when coming to the prison, or by friends and relatives. Regency prisons were not the only places in which to hold criminals, but a lockup for the insane as well.  There was no move to separate these two classes of prisoners, and there was no attempt at reforming or rehabilitating the criminal until a report by the Holford Committee, formed to examine prison conditions in 1811, called for prison reforms. These included the establishment of penitentiaries, with Millbank Prison in London being the first model completed, in 1816.
Earle Harwood and his friend Mr. Bailey came to Deane yesterday, but are not to stay above a day or two. Earle has got the appointment to a prison-ship at Portsmouth, which he has been for some time desirous of having, and he and his wife are to live on board for the future. Jane Austen to Cassandra Steventon, December 18, 1798
The transportation of criminals was legalized in 1719, and it became common practice to send crimials who had escaped the gallows into servitude overseas. The sale of convicts to both American and west Indian plantations had been going on for decades prior to this, but it was never before sanctioned by law. Prisoners were sold for ten pounds per head, though agents charged forty pounds to the government to meet their expenses in transporting them. In 1776, the Revolutionary War interfered with the transportation of prisoners, and the English government was forced to look elsewhere for a place to send its criminals, a search that lasted ten years.  Finally, it was decided to house convicts in the hulks of old ships moored on the Thames at Portsmouth, Woolwich and Plymouth. However, these quickly became over crowded, and in 1786, it was decided to once again transport prisoners, this time to the Australian colonies. Problems arose from the shortage of transport ships, and as the number of convicts awaiting sail arose, antiquated prisons became still more crowded, necessitating the use of still more hulks. In 1816, there was a population of twenty-five hundred housed aboard five hulks. It is not surprising that the hulks became a school of vice for young prisoners, and discipline a problem. By 1841, the governments in Australia and New South Wales refused to take any more English convicts. With transportation no longer a viable housing option for prisoners, the English government  was forced to take control of the newer penitentiaries of Millbank, Dartmoor, Portland, Parkhurst and Pentonville and place them under national administration.” Further information about life as a transported convict during the Regency can be found in the book, The Girl from Botany Bay.

Text for this article about Regency prisons from Elizabeth Fry, published by Ladybird Books (0721403379) and The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England from 1811-1901, by Kristine Hughes; Paperback: 260 pages; Writer's Digest Books (February 1, 1998)  978-1582972800.

1 comment

I like this insight into victorian England. I would particularly like to get more on the physical ,social setting and message of Jane Austen in ‘Emma’

Waligo Ronnie July 26, 2020

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