Convict Prison Lives in Victorian London
by Helen Johnston, Barry Godfrey and David Cox (Universities of Hull, Liverpool and Wolverhampton)
After the demise of the use of the transportation of convicts to Australia in the 1850s, the government established a British convict prison system. Under this system prisoners who would otherwise have been transported would be held under a sentence of ‘penal servitude’ in convict prisons. Many of these were in or around London (Pentonville, Millbank, Woking, and the woman’s Refuge at Fulham). So what was it like to be confined in the convict prison system and what records exist to reconstruct the experience of lengthy terms of imprisonment? This article examines these questions through the life of Robert Kidd, one persistent offender who spent long periods confined in various prisons. His is one of hundreds of lives of offenders we are reconstructing as part of a research project on the costs of imprisonment funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (primarily we are using Prison Commission files from the National Archives as well as the Censuses, Birth, Marriages and Deaths records and newspapers).
Kidd was born in Westminster in 1832. He first appeared before the Surrey Quarter Sessions in 1851 when he was convicted of stealing a navigable boat, he received a four month prison sentence. This was the first of twenty times he was sent by Surrey Sessions and Lambeth Police Court to the Surrey House of Correction (now Wandsworth Prison (LMA archives on Wandsworth prison, Ref Code: ACC/3444), chiefly for petty thefts. Indeed, all short periods of imprisonment under two years in length were served in local county prisons or house of correction. By his mid twenties Robert was a potter’s labourer; he was single; he could read and write; and he belonged to the Church of England. He may have been in the Navy as he had a sailor and flag and anchors tattooed on his wrists and he had previous convictions ‘in the East’. By 1852 Robert had lost his left leg due to white swelling or scrofula (this was a tumour of the joint; and was treated by amputation).
In 1862, Robert receives his first sentence of penal servitude when Surrey Sessions find him guilty of stealing a pair of slippers and sentenced him to four years. After being committed to Horsemonger Lane Prison, Robert was then transferred to Millbank convict prison. There, all convicts underwent a period of separate confinement; working, sleeping and eating in their solitary cell. They only left the cell for exercise (during which they would be masked) and to attend chapel, and no communication was permitted. On completion, convicts were sent to public works prisons and due to his disability, in 1862 Robert was moved to Woking Invalid prison. Contrary to popular belief, the Victorians did not lock people up and throw away the key but operated a policy of remission (conditional early release or parole) on license (or ticket of leave) for those serving long sentences. For Robert, this meant release from prison ten months early, in April 1865. Unfortunately, however, Robert failed to report to the police as he was required to do as a condition of his license, and in August 1865 he was returned to prison and subsequently released at the end of his sentence in March 1866. He was helped at this point by the London Discharged Prisoners Aid Society (Records for Surrey and South London DPAS are available at LMA Ref Code: ACC/3444/SS (1893-1927).
The following year Robert received 10 years penal servitude for the theft of a pair of trousers. After another period at Millbank, Robert spends most of his sentence at Woking Invalid prison. He regularly wrote to his sister, a respectable paper flower seller, but the penal record also indicates his failing health. Robert got into trouble in Woking prison for talking, stealing medical dressings and other petty disciplinary offences. For these he spent a few days in solitary confinement on a bread and water diet. Robert complained about his treatment by the Medical Officer on a number of occasions. The Medical Officer countered that Robert was “an old person and seems desirous of spending his time in hospital.” Disagreements with the Medical Officer continue until July 1876 when Robert was 45 years old and he is released again on license through the Discharged Prisoners Aid Society with 1 year and 3 months of his sentence unserved.
In August 1879, Robert received another 10 years for larceny from the Surrey Sessions and was initially committed to Wandsworth Prison. His address was given as St Saviours’ Union, Blackfriars Road, London (Parish records for St Mary, Newington: Park Road, Kennington are available at the LMA under Ref Code: P92/MRY, they also contain records for Newington Workhouse). He then served a period of separate confinement at Pentonville prison. His petitions to the Secretary of State pleading for mitigation of his sentence were refused. In 1880 he transferred to Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight where he spent the next seven years. Robert once again spent time under the care of the Medical Officer suffering from eczema, then bronchitis, and he also got in trouble for avoiding three hours labour by sending in a sick note after he had just been treated. By February 1887 he was declared unfit for labour of any kind and was permitted to grow his hair in preparation for release on license. He was given clothing to be discharged in and a crutch; and his leg was bandaged when he was released on license on 24th May 1887, two years and four months early. From the records available, Robert committed no further crimes and on the 1891 Census he was simply described as a 60 year old retired potter living in the Newington Workhouse, St Saviour’s Union. Robert died there a year later.
This article originally appeared on the London Metropolitan Archives website.