Back in 2006, when I did the research for my book Prison Life in Victorian England, I remember being struck with sadness and pity for the babies of female prisoners who were born in prison and incarcerated with their mothers. Women who gave birth in prison could keep their babies with them, providing they were breastfeeding, sometimes until the end of their sentences.
In the 1860s, when Henry Mayhew visited Brixton Prison, the chaplain explained the rules about infants in the prison: ‘If the child be born here it is to stay with the mother but if born in jail before the mother comes here, it is to be sent to the Union immediately she is ordered to be removed to this prison. We never had a child older than four years, but at Millbank one little thing had been kept so long incarcerated, that on going out of the prison it called a horse a cat’.
|‘A Baby’s Cot’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London, 1901)|
The first crèche for prison babies was at Holloway Castle prison where babies born in jail and those under three months old at the time of their mothers’ conviction were cared for. Under this system, a baby slept in a cot in its mother’s cell and was taken to the day-nursery at 8.30 a.m. The wardresses bathed and fed each baby before putting it to bed again. If the mother’s conduct had been satisfactory, she might be allowed to see her baby at lunchtime or to take it with her when exercising in the prison yard. In fine weather, after lunch the baby spent most of the day with a prison nurse in a special tent in the garden.
Concerns were raised about children in convict prison nurseries, especially those who were there for long periods. It was feared that the contaminating influence of the criminal mothers on their offspring would mean the children themselves would be tempted into a life of crime. By 1900, all babies had to leave the prison at nine months. After this age, if a criminal mother had no family to look after her baby, it was sent to the workhouse and became an inmate for the duration of the prison sentence.
How wonderful, then, to read of a more positive view of prison babies at the end of the 19th century. I recently discovered an article in Living London (1901) about Wormwood Scrubs Prison which argued that “in many cases the prison born are better off than the free born – more cared for, more delicately nurtured than those who have first seen the light and have been dragged up in the purlieus and dark dens of the town.”
|‘Baby Parade’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London, 1901)|
The journalist added:
“Prison mothers are generally a pattern to their sex. Discipline apart, and the stimulus it gives to good behaviour, there are no disturbing emotions within the walls, no incentives to neglect of offspring, no drink, no masterful men, no temptation to thieve or go astray; and thus their better feelings, their purer maternal instincts, have full play. So the prison baby has, for the most part, a good time.
High officials, visitors, matron, warders, are all glad to pet and cosset it, there is plenty of wholesome food, it has toys to play with, fresh air and exercise in its mother’s arms, while its nursery, though no doubt a cell, is bright, well-ventilated, not ill-furnished with its comfortable cot, and is scrupulously clean. Moreover, when the prison mother is drawn elsewhere by the necessities of her daily toil, she knows that her baby will be well cared for in the prison nursery or creche.”
|‘In the Women’s Work Room’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London , 1901)|
If you ever get the chance, visit Beaumaris Gaol on Anglesey. In the prison, there is a nursery in which you can see a Victorian baby’s cradle. On one end of the cradle was a rope which hung down into the room below. This was the female prisoners’ workroom and they could rock their infants’ cradles from below the nursery without stopping their work. At Beaumaris, you can also explore all the corridors and cells, including the condemned cell and the punishment cell. There’s also the original treadwheel used to provide work for the prisoners – this is the only place I’ve ever seen a surviving one of these.