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Prison conditions in 1836

However effective the Metropolitan Police was, problems remained with the prisons at this time. Things had not changed much since 1818.

This lengthy extract is from the first report of the Prison Inspectors, made in 1836. It is taken from Parliamentary Papers, 1836/XXV, pages 16-20 and 271-272. The Inspectors are writing about Newgate Gaol.


We first visited that part of the prison called the Chapel Yard. To this are attached three rooms or wards, Nos. 10, 11, and 12, which the prisoners occupy by day, and in which they sleep at night. All the prisoners have access to the yard, and can go to all the rooms. In this yard there are at times 50 or 60 prisoners. When first visited by us the number was 20, of whom we found in room No. 10, eight; No. 11 six; and in No. 12, six.

Here were associated together the convicted and the untried, the felon and the misdemeanant, the sane and the insane, the old and young offender. [By looking at the Appendix to the report] it will be seen that all the classes, which are required by the Gaol Act to be kept distinct, ("care being taken that prisoners of those classes do not intermix with each other,") are here confounded together; and, as if to increase the evil, and to show a greater contempt for the law, there is also added the insane.

In ward No. 10 we found that the wardsman, a convicted prisoner, owned all the bedding, the crockery ware, the knives. forks, kettles and saucepans for the use of which each prisoner pays him 2s. 6d. per week. The above-mentioned articles are purchased for the purpose by the wardsman, upon his appointment to his situation. [Name omitted] who was wardsman until a few days ago in this ward (No. 10), paid, on his appointment, £3. 10s. The present wardsman, [name omitted] has as yet paid nothing; but if he continues in his situation he will do so, and will receive from the prisoners the usual weekly pay. In this ward, in consequence of the high demand of money for extra accommodations, such as are considered the most decent and respectable of the prisoners are usually placed; and it appeared to us, that as many as were able to pay the sum required, readily found admission into it.

There was a good supply of Bibles and Prayer-books, provided by the prison, together with other religious books, the gift of a Captain Brown. These books, particularly the Bibles, bore little appearance of having been used.

On examining the cupboards of this ward we discovered a pack of cards, apparently much used, a cribbage-board and pegs, and two draught-boards and men. We also found four tobacco pipes, in some of which the tobacco still remained; and a box with tobacco in it. These, though forbidden by the prison regulations, were quite exposed on the shelves of the cupboards, and must have been detected, on the most superficial inspection of the ward, by any officer of the prison.

We found also a bundle of newspapers, twelve in all; and, upon inquiring, we were informed that a daily paper is taken in, in this ward. The newsman who lives next door to the Giltspur-street Compter, and who is also a tobacconist, brings it regularly every day to his customers, the prisoners, to whom he has access, unattended by an officer. One of the principal turnkeys, who accompanied us, said that the daily papers were allowed by the governor, but that no Sunday paper was admitted; such papers, he said, were strictly forbidden. This he told us aloud, in the hearing of the prisoners. But we subsequently ascertained that Sunday papers were as publicly brought into the prison on the Sunday morning, as the other papers were during the rest of the week; that several of them were purchased by the prisoners in the different wards of the prison; that during the whole of Sunday they were openly used by the prisoners; that on Sunday evenings the turnkey above alluded to regularly borrowed the Sunday paper, The Dispatch, from a prisoner, and returned it to him on the Monday.

We found porter in a bottle on the shelf, though none could have been brought into the ward since one o'clock the day before.

The wardsman had a snuff-box and snuff, which he used continually and openly: there was also another snuff-box in the ward; and each prisoner, if he liked, might have had one.

We observed in the cupboard mince pies and cold provisions, any quantity of which may be brought in by the friends of the prisoners - to the untried three times, and to the convicted once a week; but, as these are indiscriminately mixed together, they assist one another in having a regular and abundant supply of provisions, which all, both untried and convicted, procure by means of money or friends.

We found two boxes, containing two or three strong files, four bradawls, several large iron spikes, screws, nails and knives; all of them instruments calculated to facilitate attempts at breaking out of prison, and capable of becoming most dangerous weapons in the hands of desperate and determined men.

We also found several books: amongst them Guthries' Grammar, a song book, the Keepsake Annual for 1836, and the [name omitted] by [ditto], 18 plates, published by Stockdale, 1827. This last is a book of a most disgusting nature, and the plates are obscene and indecent in the extreme. It was claimed as his property by a prisoner named [name omitted] and was kept in the cupboard without any attempt at concealment. We also met with large bundles of papers, which on examination proved to be rough draughts of briefs for the use of prisoners' counsel; and were informed by one of the principal turnkeys that the wardsman of No. 10, Chapel Yard, and also the wardsman of the Master's Side Yard, are permitted by the prison authorities to draw briefs for the defence of prisoners, both male and female, and to receive 5s. for each brief.

Last sessions a prisoner drew 11 briefs (eight for males, and three for females) and received the money for the whole. One of the principal turnkeys informed us that he had known some sessions, and that not long ago, in which the wardsman had drawn from 20 to 30 briefs. The wardsman who draws the brief has the prisoner (if a male) brought to him, and from him he receives the particulars of his case. If the brief is for a female, the wardsman goes round to that part of the prison occupied by the females, and there converses with the female prisoner, separated from her only by open iron railings, not in the hearing, nor at all times in the sight, of any officer, male or female. Sometimes the female is admitted to the male side of the prison, and sees the wardsman who is to draw her brief in a room called the "Bread Room." Before the present Session the female prisoner was at these times unaccompanied by any female officer. Under the present regulations one of the matrons accompanies the female prisoner when admitted to the male side; but when the wardsman takes the statements of the female prisoner at the gate or visiting railings of the female prison, the interview is quite private. The facts upon which the brief is to be prepared are frequently stated al