Spanning more than 63 years, Queen Victoria’s reign was one of huge change. Many aspects of life at the end of the period in 1901 would have been unrecognisable to those alive when Victoria was crowned in 1837. This was particularly true of the way in which prisoners and convicts were treated in prison.

The Prisons Act of 1835 advocated the separate system as the best form of discipline for English prisons. Under this regime, prisoners were kept in strict confinement in separate cells, day and night, for all or part of their sentences, with breaks for chapel and exercise. Separate confinement was designed to prevent the ‘contaminating’ association of prisoners with each other, and to allow prisoners time to reflect on their crimes and futures. 

Pentonville was built as a model prison for the separate confinement of convicts between 1840 and 1842. By 1856, around two-thirds of English prisons had wholly, or partially, adopted the separate system.

The first stage of penal servitude for a convict was to spend a period of time in separate confinement. At first, in Pentonville, this was to be for eighteen months, but it was reduced to twelve months in 1848. In early 1852, according to Henry Mayhew, ‘there occurred an unusually large number of cases of mental affection among the prisoners, and it was therefore deemed necessary to increase the amount of exercise in the open air, and to introduce the plan of brisk walking, as pursued at Wakefield’. The period of separate confinement was again reduced in 1853, this time to nine months.

From Mayhew, Henry and Binny, John, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (1862)

Although prisoners were prevented from talking to each other by being confined to their cells, they could converse with the governor and other members of prison staff, including the chaplain, schoolmaster and medical officer, who visited them there. This distinguished the separate system from solitary confinement, where isolation was complete.

When Henry Mayhew visited Pentonville, he discovered that separate confinement was widely disliked by the prisoners. He found that a ‘curious privilege granted to well-conducted prisoners in Pentonville, is the liberty of labouring; for so terrible is separate confinement found to be, without occupation, that one of the forms of punishment peculiar to this prison is the stoppage of a man’s work, and forcing him to remain in his own cell in a state of idleness throughout the day.’

It was vital to monitor the effects of separate confinement on mental and physical health, hence the medical officer’s duty to make regular examinations of prisoners. Michael Davitt, a Fenian convict sentenced to fifteen years’ penal servitude in 1870, found his nine months of separate confinement in Millbank to be ‘the most onerous part of his sentence’. His health suffered considerably and, after eight months, on the orders of the medical officer, he was granted an extra half-hour’s exercise a day. He wrote: ‘That human reason should give way under such adverse influences is not, I think, to be wondered at: and many a still living wreck of manhood can refer to the silent system of Millbank and its pernicious surrounding as the cause of his debilitated mind.’

By the time Major Arthur Griffiths visited Wormwood Scrubs in 1901, he found that in principle, the rule of strict separation was enforced ‘but not solitary confinement for that form of torture has long been abandoned by us.’ At Wormwood, there were male and female prisoners, usually incarcerated for short periods, but also convicts starting their penal servitude. There were ‘thieves in all lines of business – from the pickpocket to the garroter. The burglar, the forger, the fraudulent financier, the dishonest clerk are to be found here, and every kind of felon and misdemeanant is subjected to the same regime.’

‘Prisoners Going to Dinner’ from Living London, 1901

According to Major Griffiths, all the prisoners were segregated ‘each one, in a separate cell or small room; that is to say, when they are not under discipline and observation. They are alone when at leisure, when feeding, sleeping, resting from labour; alone, as a general rule when at work, although some forms of labour are now carried out in common.

‘The isolation is never continuous, even for those kept in cells; it is broken by constant visits. The governor comes daily and the chaplain, the doctor, and other superior officers; the trade instructors and schoolmaster also spend much time with each pupil. Then there is the break for Divine service and again for exercise, when the prisoners leave their cells to pass along the galleries and file down the light staircases out into the open yards. Silence is sternly prescribed, but it cannot be invariably maintained. In chapel especially, seated close together, it is easy to communicate. Conversation passes under cover of the hymns, which are sung with great heartiness and in the yards…men can talk by the movement of their lips and without making any audible sound.

‘Bootmaking at Wormwood Scrubs’ from Living London, 1901

‘Of late the prison authorities have gone further, and permit the well-conducted, after a brief period of separation, to be associated in their daily work. At Wormwood Scrubs the ground floors of the great halls are converted into rough and ready ateliers, and such simple trades are prosecuted as post-bag making, mat making, basket making, and the manufacture of rope. …So you will see that the prison carpenters produce boxes of all sorts for his Majesty’s Post Office, that coal sacks for the Navy, bedding and blankets for the Army are manufactured largely in prison.

Major Griffiths thought that the work-rooms at Wormwood Scrubs were ‘hives of intelligently conducted industry’. He wrote, ‘There are prison dressmakers, cutters-out, fitters, machine workers, milliners; and the female officers’ uniforms, costumes, cloaks and bonnets would not discredit a West-End place of business. In the bootmakers’ shop a brisk trade is done; the tailors are genuine ‘snips’, glad enough to be employed to keep their hands in… Long previous training is not needed in the kitchen: muscular strength only is indispensable for the handling of great sides of beef, for carrying heavy cans and dinner trays, but…the daily toil of the prison cooks is severe.’

‘At Work Out of Doors’ from Living London, 1901

Sources: Griffiths, Major Arthur, ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’, from Living London (1901); Mayhew, Henry and Binny, John, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (1862); McConville, Sean, English Local Prisons 1860-1900: Next Only to Death (Routledge, 1995); Thomas, The English Prison Officer Since 1850 – A Study in Conflict (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972)