HARD LABOUR IN VICTORIAN PRISONS

Read any Victorian newspaper and you’ll come across regular reports of criminal trials that had taken place at the assizes, quarter sessions or petty sessions. The accused is named, the case is described and the verdict is given. Where someone was found guilty of an offence such as theft, the punishment was usually hard labour for a specified number of days or months, unless there was a previous conviction that had to be taken into account.

Take the case of William Anderson, a labourer from Lancashire born in 1837. He committed his first criminal offence in 1852 when he was aged just fifteen. With another boy, he was convicted at the Manchester Petty Sessions of stealing brass fittings from an empty house in Francis Street, Strangeways and was sentenced to three calendar months’ hard labour. 

But what did ‘hard labour’ consist of, and what was in store for William at the New Bailey Prison in Salford where he would have served his sentence? (Strangeways Prison was not built until 1868).

Under prison regulations, if a male prisoner over the age of sixteen was sentenced to hard labour, this was to be of the first class ‘during the whole of his sentence, where it does not exceed three months, and during the first three months of his sentence where it exceeds three months’. He was to work for not more than ten or less than six hours (exclusive of meals), subject to the medical officer’s approval. After three months, the justices could prescribe second class labour, which was less severe than labour of the first class. By 1877, the maximum period in which a prisoner was to undertake first class hard labour was reduced from three months to one.

If the medical officer deemed any prisoner to be unfit for hard labour of the first class, he could order he be kept at hard labour of the second class. The surgeon could also certify that a prisoner was unfit to be kept at either class of labour. Prisoners sentenced to hard labour for periods not exceeding fourteen days could be kept in separate confinement at hard labour of the second class. Those who were not fit enough for hard labour of either class were to be employed in a trade. There was no hard labour on Sundays, Christmas Day, Good Friday or on days appointed for public fasts or thanksgivings.

From Mayhew & Binny’s The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (1862)

Under the Prisons Act of 1865, prisons were to be a deterrent providing ‘hard labour, hard fare and hard board’. It was decreed that ‘the treadwheel, crank, capstan, shot-drill and stone-breaking were listed as acceptable types of first class hard labour, and such others as the justices wished to provide had to be approved by the Secretary of State’. However, before 1877, local prisons like the New Bailey were run by county justices and they all had a different interpretation of hard labour. As late as 1879, it was discovered that ‘mat-making, coir-plaiting, oakum-picking, weaving, rope beating, net-making, twine-spinning, sugar chopping and blacksmithing were all variously used and represented as first class labour’.

The treadwheel was undisputably the most feared and hated of all hard labour. Invented by William Cubitt in 1818, there was no ambiguity about whether or not it was appropriate for hard labour of the first class. When working the treadwheel, the prisoner had to lift ‘his body up three feet at each step’. Until 1880, the task was not standardised and the height the prisoners were required to climb varied from prison to prison. The Prison Discipline Society advised that each male individual should complete ‘12,000 feet of ascent per diem’ which was akin to climbing the Matterhorn. However, at York prisoners climbed 6,000 feet, at Stafford it was 16,630 feet while at Salford’s New Bailey where William Anderson served his sentence, it was 19,400 in summer and 14,450 in winter. Treadwheels were usually unproductive and part of the Victorian prison’s aim to deter criminals, rather than rehabilitate them.

The intense physical effort required by prisoners working the treadwheel raised concerns about their state of health and whether the quantity of diet allowed to them was sufficient.  In June 1868 at Worcester Prison, it was recommended by the medical officer George Edwin Hyde that ‘no prisoner be worked on the treadwheel before breakfast, and that a corresponding period of hard labour in the cell be substituted…’ By June 1872, he recommended that the class 1 prisoners working on the treadwheel ‘be allowed one pint of gruel for breakfast and supper daily, in addition to the ordinary diet of that class’.

From Mayhew & Binny’s The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (1862)

Prisoners would do almost anything to avoid working on the treadwheel. In 1850, the surgeon at the House of Correction at Kirton-in-Lindsay reported that:

‘They frequently swallow soap, which has the effect of purging them and bringing on a low fever, during the continuance of which it is impossible to put a man on the wheel. They formerly ate large quantities of salt, in order to bring on fever, and to prevent this they were deprived of their salt bags… I think it very desirable as a matter of health, as well as in a moral point of view, that some other employment should be substituted for the treadwheel labour; and as an immediate measure, I would recommend that, during the last quarter of an hour before breakfast, and the last half-hour before dinner and supper, the prisoners should leave the wheel and walk about to cool themselves gradually, instead of going straight into the cold passages to get their meals’.

Prisoners would do almost anything to avoid working on the treadwheel. In 1850, the surgeon at the House of Correction at Kirton-in-Lindsay reported that: ‘They frequently swallow soap, which has the effect of purging them and bringing on a low fever, during the continuance of which it is impossible to put a man on the wheel. They formerly ate large quantities of salt, in order to bring on fever, and to prevent this they were deprived of their salt bags… I think it very desirable as a matter of health, as well as in a moral point of view, that some other employment should be substituted for the treadwheel labour; and as an immediate measure, I would recommend that, during the last quarter of an hour before breakfast, and the last half-hour before dinner and supper, the prisoners should leave the wheel and walk about to cool themselves gradually, instead of going straight into the cold passages to get their meals’.

Working the treadwheel could be extremely dangerous for those new to the task, or those who were simply exhausted. At Stafford, ‘one man fell off the wheel from sheer exhaustion. The cry “a man down” was soon raised, and the mill at once stopped, but not until he had been terribly crushed by it…one of his legs was broken’.

By 1880, a standardised six hour treadwheel task was introduced which prisoners worked in two equal shifts. Prisoners were allowed five minutes’ rest between each fifteen minute session on the wheel and the speed of the wheel was regulated to allow an ascent of thirty-two feet a minute. However, the high cost of replacing treadwheels with standardised versions meant that many prisons used the crank, capstan and stone-breaking instead. By 1890, there were still cranks connected to pumps, mills operated by prisoners in separate compartments, water-pumping capstans and unproductive fixed-resistance cranks in cells. The treadwheel was finally abolished in 1895.

From Mayhew & Binny’s The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (1862)

If you ever get the opportunity, visit Beaumaris Gaol on Anglesey. It still has an original treadwheel, which is believed to be the last one in Britain. Unusually, it was productive and was designed so that water could be pumped to the roof tanks, and from there to the cells.

William Anderson appears to be have been undeterred by the years of hard labour he undertook as part of his numerous prison sentences, including five separate periods of penal servitude in convict prisons. His criminal career spanned over fifty years and he used multiple aliases including Thomas Johnson, James McGuinness, William Pearson, William Edwards, William Robson and William Evans. His offences ranged from stealing clothing and umbrellas through to attempted theft and receiving stolen property. Old hands like William clearly got used to the work and the routine in prisons, and appreciated the guarantee of three meals a day.

LIFE AS A POLICE CONSTABLE IN LATE VICTORIAN LONDON

As the current series of Ripper Street draws to a close on BBC1, I decided to devote this blog post to policing in late Victorian London. I’ve been impressed by the character of P.C. Bobby Grace in Series 3 and will look forward to his development in the next series. But how were police constables recruited and what were their day-to-day duties?

In 1901, a journalist for Living London observed the Metropolitan Police Force at work. When referring to police constables, he wrote: “Any young man in possession of good health and character, between twenty-one and twenty-seven years of age and not less than 5 ft 9 in. in height, may apply for admission to the force; and, if preliminary inquiries prove satisfactory, he will be directed to attend at headquarters on a specified Tuesday. There, in company with some fifty other candidates, he must undergo a searching examination at the hands of the Chief Surgeon, and if pronounced physically fit for police duty will be further tested as to his general intelligence and his ability to read and to write well.”

Afterwards, the budding constable was sent for three weeks as a ‘candidate on probation’ to the Candidates’ Section House in Kennington Lane. While there, he was drilled twice daily in squad exercises by an instructor at Wellington Barracks, and also trained in the use of the ambulance. He was then sworn in as a constable “from which moment his career as a guardian of the public peace begins”. He was then posted to fill a vacancy at one or other of the twenty-two divisions of the force.

‘Drilling Recruits (Wellington Barracks)’ from Living London (1901)

At his division, the new young constable was given his number and a uniform. His on-the-job training continued: “After attending the local police court to observe how police cases are conducted, he is sent out for a little while under the charge of an experienced officer to gain practical knowledge of his duties, and is given leisure for the study of his ‘police instruction book’ – a vellum-bound volume, full of statutes and regulations, and apt to prove a very indigestible mental diet to the ‘new chum’. And at last he finds himself a recognised ‘duty man’ taking his share with the rest in the police control of London.”

In 1901, a police constable’s pay started at 25s. 6d. weekly, “rising a shilling annually to the modest limit of 33s. 6d.” But if he was a efficient officer, a policeman like P.C. Bobby Grace could “rise through the grades of sergeant, station officer, and inspector to the rank of superintendent, at a salary of £400 a year.” Along with his uniform, the police constable was given “an armlet, to be worn on the left sleeve when on duty, a whistle and chain, and a stout boxwood truncheon – his sole weapon of defence.” By 1901, handcuffs were no longer carried unless some violent or dangerous offender was to be apprehended. The young officer was then sent to do eight hours’ duty daily in the London streets, either in two terms of four hours each or in a single spell.

‘Going on Duty’ from Living London (1901)

The work was extremely varied with “disturbances to be quelled and crowds dispersed, doubtful characters to be watched and obstructive costermongers and street vendors to be ‘moved on’, endless questions to be answered and directions given; stray dogs to be seized, pickpockets, beggars, drunken persons, and other actual or suspected offenders to be arrested, besides innumerable minor breaches of the law to be reported.”

The single men of each division were housed in the ‘divisional section house’, “a sort of police barracks, but roomy, well-appointed, and homely, as soldiers’ quarters are not”. For a subscription of six or seven shillings weekly, the constable was entitled to a comfortable bed in this building, a hot dinner or supper daily, and the use of the police library and common rooms.  After his duty was over, “he amuses himself with billiards, chess, boxing, and gymnastics, or, if he prefers, can read or study for promotion undisturbed. There are cricket and football clubs in each division, a band for musical members of the force, a sick room and medical care for the suffering.”

‘In a Section House: A Wrestling Bout’ from Living London (1901)

 The journalist for Living London was at pains to point out the benefits of working in the police force: “reserve pay, snug billets as caretakers, special payments for doing duty at London theatres and museums, and so on. Thus, arduous and trying as is police life in London, it has its compensations. And it is rewarded, besides, after twenty-six years’ service, with a life-pension of two-thirds of the officer’s pay – a fitting conclusion to the career of this long-suffering guardian and useful servant of the London public.”

It will be interesting to see how far P.C. Bobby Grace progresses up the ranks – if he doesn’t get killed off, that is!

VICTORIAN PRISONERS: LIFE IN HOLLOWAY PRISON

As a big fan of BBC’s Ripper Street, I love seeing all the wonderful Victorian details and the programme’s portrayal of how Victorian crime detection actually worked. But have you ever wondered what would have happened next to the people they arrest? Chances are they would have ended up in Holloway Prison while awaiting trial.

By the late nineteenth century, Holloway Prison was a ‘trial’ prison for men suspected of having committed a criminal offence. It also held convicted female prisoners and women awaiting trial. As a result, the male and female sections of the prison were very different. For the men, there was no hard labour and they wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms.

If they were wealthy, these men could even take advantage of the ‘superior accommodation’ highlighted by Living London (1901): ‘A certain number of cells are fitted up, not luxuriously, but with bedstead, and table, and chest of drawers, for which the occupant is charged a shilling or two per week.’

They could also enjoy better food: ‘While the poorer prisoners must be satisfied with the prison diet, those who can pay – and so the world wags always! – may “supply themselves”. There are eating houses just outside the gates ready to contract on the official scale for breakfast, dinner, and tea, or the prisoners depend on their friends to bring in their meals. A large amount of work is thrown upon the prison officials in this matter of food. It is brought in tins, and basins, and bundles, tied up in towels or red handkerchiefs – great slices of meat, cold vegetables, cold bacon, eggs, and loaves of every variety, and the utmost care must be observed to give each his own proper allowance. The regulations, too, allow a small quantity of stimulant, a pint of beer, or half-a-pint of wine, and here, again, there is endless troubles among the bottles, and tankards, and cans.’

Each week, there was a similar pattern of activities in Holloway with certain hours set aside for interviews with legal advisors: ‘Lawyer and client sit alone in the room specially provided, quite private as regards sound, but with a glazed side so that the warder on duty may keep his eye on all that does on. Solicitors seldom work without fees, and the penniless prisoner – once more it is money that rules – must work unaided by advice. He may have as much paper as he pleases, and can draw up any number of statements.’

It was the session days when trials were heard in court which were the busiest in Holloway:

‘… the great vans are loaded for the journey down to the courts, and escort duty falls heavily upon the officers. …there is much business in connection with papers, and especially the personal property of the accused, which must go down for immediate restoration on acquittal. No one can be detained after a favourable verdict is given, and all effects – money, watches, jewellery, and so forth – must be handed then and there to the discharged prisoner as he leaves the dock a free man.’

Perhaps most striking of all, Living London highlighted the fact that three days a week, there was a great gathering of detective officers at Holloway. I can just imagine a real-life version of Detective Reid arriving at the prison:

‘…they come from all the London divisions, and their business is to run down the men they know, often enough a man “much wanted” who has long evaded pursuit, but having been caught for some minor offence is now “remanded for inquiry”…Our police use both the Bertillon system of identification by measurements and that by “fingerprints” but they cling still to the older aids of memory and instinct.’

There was an hour every morning for exercise in the yards and the men were a real motley crue:

‘Here is a “swell” in frock coat and tall hat; he is of good presence, with a pleasant face, and is charged with being the moving spirit of a Long Firm fraud. Behind him walks a London pickpocket – small, active, with a fox-like face and the loping gait that carries him fast beyond pursuit; followed by costers and riverside characters, seafaring men – a Lascar, perhaps, or a heathen Chinee – the butcher, still in his blue blouse, the artisan in green baize apron, just as he was taken from his bench after he had done the deed.’

Naturally, ‘police days’ were dreaded by the inmates and the detectives regularly found their ‘most wanted’.

VICTORIAN CRIMINALS – TRICKS OF THE TRADE

If you were to visit Victorian England, especially one of the large towns, it wouldn’t be long before you saw a police officer clad in blue (nicknamed ‘bluebottles’). They had the unenviable job of trying to keep order on the streets – a job which was tough, dangerous and definitely not for the fainthearted. As a fan of Ripper Street, the BBC1 TV series, it’s been fascinating to find out more about the methods used by Victorian detectives in gathering evidence, finding witnesses and tracking criminals.

That’s why I was so interested in an article I recently found in the periodical Living London (1901) about New Scotland Yard. In it, mention is made of the Yard’s Black Museum which was ‘more than a collection of grim and ghastly curiosities [or] the relics of celebrated crimes’. It was described as a place where ‘the detective police officer, anxious to improve himself professionally, will find much useful information’. This was because he could study the methods of criminals through the implements and tools which formed the exhibits:

‘Here are the “jemmy”, the screw-jack, the rope ladder (Peace’s), light and easy of carriage under an overcoat, the neat dark lantern made out of a tin matchbox, the melting pot and ladle of the coiners, with mould and other apparatus used by them; together with relics that reveal the more elaborate processes of the banknote forgers, such as copper plates, burins, lithographic stones, and so on.’

I can just imagine the real-life versions of Inspector Reid, Sergeant Drake and Detective Sergeant Flight visiting the museum in the early stages of their careers (the Black Museum was opened in 1875). They might have seen the ingenious burglar’s folding ladder:

Burglar’s folding ladder. From ‘Living London’ (1901)

Or the burglar’s pockets for holding his tools:

Burglar’s pockets for holding the tools shown below them. From ‘Living London’ (1901)

Or the knuckleduster:

Or the coiner’s moulds and tools:

Coiner’s implements including rack for holding coins during plating process, melting pot, ladle, polishing brush, etc. From ‘Living London’ (1901)
Coiner’s moulds showing spring to hold them together. From ‘Living London’ (1901).

Finally, as the Black Museum was open to the public, they may also have seen other visitors. Here’s a view of a couple examining the display cases, with a police officer on hand to tell a few stories, no doubt. There is a row of death masks at the back. One of the ropes on display was used by cook Marguerite Dixblanc to drag the corpse of her murdered mistress into the scullery.