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Victorian Britain

Prisons at this time were often in old buildings, such as castles. They tended to be damp, unhealthy, insanitary and over-crowded. All kinds of prisoners were mixed in together, as at Coldbath Fields: men, women, children; the insane; serious criminals and petty criminals; people awaiting trial; and debtors. Each prison was run by the gaoler in his own way. He made up the rules. If you could pay, you could buy extra privileges, such as private rooms, better food, more visitors, keeping pets, letters going in and out, and books to read. If you could not, the basic fare was grim. You even had to pay the gaoler to be let out when your sentence was finished.

Law and order was a major issue in Victorian Britain. Victorians were worried about the huge new cities that had grown up following the Industrial Revolution – how were the masses to be kept under control? They were worried about rising crime. They could see that transporting convicts to Australia was not the answer and by the 1830s Australia was complaining that they did not want to be the dumping-ground for Britain’s criminals.

The answer was to reform the police and to build more prisons. Between 1842 and 1877, 90 prisons were built or added to. It was a massive building programme, costing millions of pounds. You can see the big extension to Coldbath Fields prison in Source 1. Many Victorian prisons are still in use today.

People wanted to reform prison for different reasons. Christian reformers felt that prisoners were God’s creatures and deserved to be treated decently. Rational reformers believed that the purpose of prison was to punish and reform, not to kill prisoners with disease or teach them how to be better criminals.

There was more to Victorian plans than just bigger and better buildings. In the 1840s a system of rules called ‘The Separate System’ was tried. This was based on the belief that convicted criminals had to face up to themselves. Accordingly, they were kept on their own in their cells most of the time. When they were let out, to go to chapel or for exercise, they sat in special seats or wore special masks so that they couldn’t even see, let alone talk to, another prisoner. Not surprisingly, many went mad under this system.

By the 1860s opinion had changed, believing that many criminals were habitual criminals and nothing would change them. They just had to be scared enough by prison never to offend again. The purpose of the silent system was to break convicts’ wills by being kept in total silence and by long, pointless hard labour. The Silent System is associated with the Prisons Act 1865 and the Assistant Director of Prisons, Sir Edmund du Cane, who promised the public that prisoners would get ‘Hard Labour, Hard Fare and Hard Board’. [National Archive UK]

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As senior members of the Church of England, which is the established church, some bishops are entitled to sit in the House of Lords. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester and 21 other bishops in order of seniority together form the Lords Spiritual.

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