Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia) as it is today
Today’s tale from the Police Courts is less of a particular crime and more a report of how contemporaries felt about the criminal justice system of the late 1830s. In 1839 the Metropolitan Police had been in existence for a decade, the transportation of felons to Australia was in full flood and London’s first ‘national’ prison (Millbank on the Thames) had been open for 20 years. After the turbulent years of the late teens and 1820s Britain was moving towards stability and peace but the threat of political unrest had not entirely gone away, as Chartism (c.1836-48) showed.
The problem of crime was ever present of course, because each successive generation tends to believe that life was less criminal in the previous one and any outbreak of criminality (like the ‘garrotting’ panics of the 1850s and 60s, or the ‘hooligan’ panic of the 1890s) had reporters and correspondents to the newspapers rushing to their quills to complain about the state of law and order.
In December 1839 appeared at the Guildhall Police Court and discussed the state of crime with the sitting magistrate, Alderman White. Sir Peter had an interest in law and order, having served as Lord Mayor (the City’s chief magistrate in 1832) and had written two books on prison reform.
He informed Alderman White that he had seen the reports of the prisons of the metropolis and shared its contents. These revealed that no less than 58 ‘desperate destitute persons’ were being ‘let loose to prey upon the public from the several prisons of the metropolis’ every morning.
The debate about what to do with criminals had raged in the first decades of the nineteenth century as Robert Peel’s reform of the justice system removed capital punishment from all property crimes meaning that hanging was now reserved for murderers and (until 1842) rapists. The state still transported thousands to Australia but increasingly it was the prison (the penitentiary prison, with an emphasis on reform) that provided the backbone of the penal system.Within prisons there was also a highly contested debate about how to treat convicts with some advocating a ‘silent’ system (where inmates could mingle but not talk) and others opting for the more draconian ‘separate’ system which was in effect, solitary confinement.
Sir Peter was not a fan of the modern penitentiary prison; he said that he had read a study of the penitentiary at Philadelphia (a model of the American penal system) which showed its ineffectiveness.
He told the magistrate that ‘so far from the Penitentiary at Philadelphia reforming and making useful citizens of thieves, it breaks down their bodies as well as their minds. He saw a number of prisoners who had been confined for two years, and he never before beheld such a collection of emaciated, miserable looking objects, with lack-lustre eyes. Such an approach’ he argued, ‘did men no good’.
Alderman White commented that prison reform was one of those topics that everyone seemed to have an opinion about but no one really understood; it needed much more research in his opinion. For me this is a comment that could easily be applied in the 21st century. Too much of our penal policy seems to be based on the reactions of the government of the day to public opinion expressed in the tabloid press and not on a scientific understanding of the problem.
Sir Peter ended his visit to the court by reading the report of releases from the London prisons. This showed that in the past 49 weeks 16,940 persons had been discharged from institutions in the capital (at an average rate of 345 a week). This report did not include Millbank, Newgate, or the New Prison at Clerkenwell however; if it had I think the numbers would have been considerably higher.
This shows then that the numbers being related were in the public domain (I wonder if they are so prominent today) and so Londoners could see the effect of the move away from capital punishment and transportation on the streets. This was to become much more pronounced in the 1850s as transportation to Australia slowed and then stoped in the next decade. Thereafter, the prison, however, ineffectual it might have been, was the only form of punishment available until the experiments with probation in the early Edwardian period.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, December 18, 1839]