In an episode of our ‘Everything you wanted to know’ podcast series, Rosalind Crone answered key questions on the history of prisons in Britain, from what life was like in Victorian prisons to the real state of the food. Listen to the full episode here and find out more about key milestones below…


1078 | The construction of the central keep of the Tower of London, built by William I following the Norman conquest of England. The Tower was first used as a prison for enemies of the king in about 1100.

1166 | The Assizes of Clarendon, a series of ordinances through which Henry II ordered sheriffs of every county to build gaols to keep in safe custody those accused of felonies (serious crimes) until they could be tried by the newly created itinerant royal judges (justices of the assize).

From about the 12th century, the obligation to establish and maintain a gaol in order to keep the peace was included in royal charters granted to towns. These gaols were the responsibility of the towns’ corporations (or governing bodies).

1352 | Imprisonment for debt, previously confined to those who owed money to the crown, was extended to those who owed money to private individuals.

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1556 | Bridewell Hospital in London became a ‘house of correction’ for idle apprentices, rogues and vagabonds, disorderly women and petty offenders. The idea of the bridewell or house of correction to manage social problems associated with poverty spread across England and Wales, so that be the early 1600s there were approximately 170 such institutions.

Not only did the bridewell foster the use of sentences of imprisonment for petty offenders, but it also introduced the notion of ‘reform’, that imprisonment could be used not just to punish but to transform criminals or the socially deviant into more productive members of society.

1777 | The publication of John Howard’s State of the Prisons in England and Wales, which exposed the appalling conditions in many gaols and houses of correction in Britain, and spearheaded a movement for the reform of prisons. Howard’s efforts were mirrored by those of Jeremiah Fitzpatrick in Ireland.

1779 | The passing of the first Penitentiary Act, which contained a blueprint for prison construction and a new regime of imprisonment. The national penitentiaries proposed by the legislation were not built, but the Act triggered a wave of local prison building and renovation: during the 1780s and 1790s, approximately 60 prisons were either built or substantially rebuilt. The Act also enabled judges to sentence felons to terms of imprisonment as an alternative to transportation.

1816 | Millbank, the first state penitentiary in Britain, opens. Convicted male and female felons are sent to Millbank to serve long sentences of imprisonment as an alternative to transportation. In the same year, Elizabeth Fry began to visit Newgate Gaol on a regular basis, and to embark on a programme to reform female imprisonment at that institution, and the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline in Britain was established. A second wave of national prison reform had begun.

Elizabeth Fry, English prison reformer and Quaker, circa 1820. She fought for what are now regarded as basic prison principles
Elizabeth Fry, English prison reformer and Quaker, circa 1820. She fought for what are now regarded as basic prison principles (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1823 | A Gaols Act is passed which attempts to regulate imprisonment in local prisons, and to impose some degree of uniformity. Unfortunately, the legislation lacks a mechanism for enforcement.

1835 | An independent prison inspectorate for England, Wales and Scotland is established in an attempt to enforce greater uniformity in local prisons. In the same year, two rival systems of prison discipline – separation and silence – come to characterise the debate over penal reform in Britain. Following a parliamentary inquiry, the government expresses a preference for separation.

1842 | Pentonville Prison, designed for the implementation of the separate system of prison discipline, opens. It was intended for young men (aged 18 to 35) sentenced to transportation who the authorities thought might be capable of reform. The men were subjected to 18 months separate confinement (later reduced to 9 months) at the prison, and those who showed signs of amendment were released on licence or given conditional pardons on arrival in Australia. Pentonville was promoted as a ‘model prison’ and local authorities were encouraged to replicate its design.

1857 | Sentences of transportation were abolished. Instead, convicted felons were sentenced to penal servitude – or long-term imprisonment – in Britain, for periods between 3 years and life (depending on the crime). Some convicts sentenced to penal servitude continued to be sent to the penal colony in Western Australia until 1868.

1865 | A new Prison Act abolished the distinction between gaols and houses of correction, and all local prisons became known as prisons. The Act also promoted a new penal regime based on ‘hard labour, hard board and hard fare’ in local prisons. At the same time, the punitive aspects of imprisonment in the convict prison system were intensified.

1869 | The Debtors Act substantially curtailed the use of imprisonment for debt. Only debtors who defaulted in paying fines or other sums ordered by the court could be imprisoned. The last debtors’ prison in England was closed.

1878 | Local prisons in England and Wales were nationalised, thus coming under the control of a new sub-department of the Home Office: the Prison Commission. The nationalisation of prisons in Scotland and Ireland soon followed, with national prison boards under the authority of the Home Office established in those countries. Sir Edmund Du Cane, chair of the Prison Commission, insisted on uniformity in prison discipline, including the strict implementation of the 1865 Prison Act.

1895 | The Gladstone Committee – an inquiry into prisons administered by the Home Office – ushered in a new era of imprisonment in Britain. In its wake, more specialist prisons for different types of offenders, as well as a range of non-custodial options for those convicted of crime, were established. There was a new interest in rehabilitation among policymakers, but this had a limited effect on the many prisoners confined in ordinary local prisons.


Rosalind Crone is a senior lecturer in history at the Open University, specialising in the society and culture of 19th-century Britain. She is currently writing a book, Illiterate Inmates: Educating Criminals in 19th-Century England