What to do with people who break the law

Our Convict Past - Part 1
King John signing the Magna Carta at Runnymede on June 15,1215
The Clink Prison Museum is on the site of the original Clink Prison
SE1 Community Site
House of Correction
My Brighton
A street scene by Robert Russell, outside the police office in George Street, Sydney, 1836.
© National Library of Australia
Convicts being rowed out to a prison hulk.
LAURA BOYLE Jane Austin .co
Old Newgate Prison in London
The Marshalsea Prison for debtors.
Northleach Old Prison built in the 1790s as the Northleach House of Correction

What to do with criminals and people who break the law


Marking the beginning of English judicial rights, it states that no man can be imprisoned without trial by his peers.

Article 39 –

‘No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land.’

At the beginning of this century there were about 150 prisons in the UK. Some were modern, up to date buildings and others were those built by the Victorians in the 19th century. It’s these Victorian institutions that we would recognise as prisons today.

During the Middle Ages the main method of catching lawbreakers was raising a ‘hue and cry.’ When someone was seen committing an offence everyone would give chase, catch the criminal and bring him to trial before the court. Punishments ranged from hanging and mutilation to whipping and fining!

Any accused person could seek sanctuary within the church. Many felons would ask to be tried by a church court. The ability to recite a particular psalm would often qualify a felon as a cleric, which meant they could only be tried by the church. The church also had its own prisons.The Clink in Clink Street, Southwark is probably the most well known.  

In 1615, Thomas More suggested in his famous book Utopia that imprisonment and slavery were suitable punishments for criminals. Great idea or not, it was pretty academic, as there were no state prisons.

In the early years England had little need, if any, for prisons. The normal sentence for those found guilty was death while those found innocent were simply set free.  Dungeons were certainly used as prisons for soldiers and enemies of the state and a  carving on the wall of the dungeon at Warwick Castle shows that one group of men were held there for several years.

16th and 17th Centuries

Up until the 17th century prisoners were incarcerated mainly for debt. A fairly pointless practice, as prisoners had to pay for their board and lodging. Others had to await their fate in county prisons, local prisons, private prisons and debtors prisons.

Sanctions for criminal behaviour tended to be public events which were designed to shame the person and deter others. Most popular were the ducking stool, the pillory, whipping, branding, banishment and the stocks. The only other viable punishment was death!

Prison tended to be a place where people were held before their trial or while awaiting punishment. It was very rarely used as a punishment in its own right. Men and women, boys and girls, debtors and murderers were all held together in local prisons.

Evidence suggests that the prisons of this period were badly maintained and often controlled by negligent prison warders. Many people died of diseases like gaol fever, which was a form of typhus.

The ‘idle poor’ are locked up and punished for their ‘laziness’.

The most important innovation of this period was the building of the prototype house of correction, the London Bridewell. Houses of correction were originally part of the machinery of the Poor Law, intended to instil habits of industry through prison labour. Most of those held in them were petty offenders, vagrants and the disorderly local poor.

It should be remembered that punishments for offenders tended to depend on whether the sentencing officers regarded punishment as a means of deterring others, a process of reform or straightforward retribution.

18th Century

Although the 18th century has been characterised as the era of the ‘Bloody Code’ there was growing opposition to the death penalty for all but the most serious crimes. Such severe punishment was counter-productive, as jurors were refusing to find thieves guilty of offences which would lead to their execution.

Duke of Wellington

‘We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers.’

As the population grew so did the number of criminals and sadly execution tended to be seen as the only practicable solution. One alternative was to offer criminals a pardon if they joined the army or navy. This proved very useful during the Napoleonic Wars and provided the army with a constant supply of recruits. Unfortunately after Waterloo thousands of soldiers and sailors returned home to poverty and a life of crime.

Hard labour was beginning to been seen as a suitable sanction for petty offenders but how to implement it on a large scale? If only the guilty could just disappear! Well they could if they were sent to far flung places on the other side of the world.


The American colonies were pretty far flung and in dire need of manual labourers who would work for nothing. Around 50,000 criminals were settled there; unfortunately after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, America refused to accepted criminals who were sentenced by English courts to transportation. However Australia looked a good bet. The first fleet with 775 prisoners sailed in 1786, followed by three large fleets between 1787 and 1791 and over the following 80 years some 160,000 convicted criminals found themselves dumped on the shores of Britain’s Australian colonies.

Britain started converting old merchant ships and naval vessels into floating prisons known as hulks. Many of these were on the River Thames. Convicts often spent many months on the hulks before being transported.

The sentence of transportation was usually carried out in three parts: prisoners started their sentence in the local gaol, followed by a period in a convict gaol or on the prison hulks before finally being transported.

Transportation alone could not solve the problem and other sanctions had to be found. The two prominent alternatives were hard labour  and, for those unable to do this, the house of correction. This practice led to the use of prison hulks from 1776 until their phasing out in 1857.

Prison Hulks

Prison hulks were ships that were anchored in the Thames and at Portsmouth and Plymouth. Those sent to them were employed in hard labour during the day and then loaded, in chains, onto the ship at night. The appalling conditions on the hulks, especially the lack of control and poor physical conditions, eventually led to the end of this practice. But the use of prison hulks did much to persuade public opinion that incarceration, with hard labour, was a viable penalty for crime.

London Prisons

At this time around half the prisons were privately owned or rented out to sub-contractors by the landlords. London’s Newgate Prison, probably the most notorious and well known establishment dated back to 1130 and was a privately owned by a commercial enterprise. In 1779 Millbank, the first state prison, was opened in London. It had integral sanitation, although sub-standard drainage caused many deaths. Millbank was denounced by the then government some 30 years later because of its ‘foulness’, overcrowding and crude conditions.

Around this time the Australian government began to resent the practice of shipping criminals to their shores and transportation was curtailed towards the end of the century. The last transportations took place in 1868, but only a small proportion of prisoners were sent to Australia after gold was discovered there in 1851. ’Why should the prisoners be rewarded for their crime by being sent to goldmines!’ Other sanctions therefore had to be found. With limited options available the government finally built Pentonville Prison, which opened in 1842.


Thanks Ian Swift

Our Convict Past – Part 1