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History Explorer: 19th-century prison reform

As part of our series in which experts nominate UK locations to illustrate wider historical topics, Alyson Brown visits Beaumaris Gaol, a 19th-century prison where inmates were punished with hard labour. Plus, we explore five related places

Beaumaris Gaol, Anglesey, Wales. The prison could accommodate up to 30 inmates under the so-called 'silent system', in which inmates slept in separate cells at night but worked and attended chapels and classes together during the day. (Ashley Cooper via Getty Images)
Published: November 7, 2013 at 6:25 pm
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Standing in Beaumaris Gaol, a prison museum in Anglesey, I can hear the mournful cries of seagulls echo through the building, as they’ve done since the prison was opened in 1829. In a part of the country known best for outstanding medieval castles, Beaumaris Gaol is a fascinating heritage site and has survived in a relatively complete state.


Progressive for their time, the cells had washing and toilet facilities, much of which remain, as does the in-cell communication system which simultaneously rang a bell in the corridor and pushed a flap forward outside the cell so that warders could determine which prisoner required assistance. Visitors can still ring the doleful bell, conjuring up a glimpse of the prison routine.

Perhaps most impressive is the prison’s treadwheel, a hard-labour device introduced into the gaol in 1867, possibly the last remaining original treadwheel in Britain still in one piece and in its original location. It is currently not in working order but there are exciting plans afoot to repair it.

The prison at Beaumaris was built in the years after the Gaol Act of 1823, which emphasised the need to classify prisoners, ensure regular labour and guarantee that inmates were given religious and moral instruction. Overall, this legislation sought, and to a limited extent achieved, a measure of uniformity amid enduring local resistance. However, Beaumaris Gaol, like many locally owned and managed prisons, soon lagged behind prevailing reform movements. It never conformed to the oft-presented model of prisoner experience in the 19th century: of inmates utterly isolated from each other, consumed by the rigid and severe discipline of a ‘total’ institution.

In this local prison, where the length of sentence served was usually less than two months, inmates were admitted and released on a frequent basis, bringing the news and the dust of the region with them. Not that this prison was overcrowded. Built to hold 30 inmates, for much of its almost 50-year operation it held a daily average population of much less. This made it vulnerable to continued central government rationalisation and it was closed, along with 37 other local prisons, soon after prisons were nationalised in 1878.

Not long after Beaumaris Gaol opened, debate on prison reform shifted to the benefits of the ‘silent’ versus the ‘separate’ system – informed by experiments in America. In the so-called silent system, inmates slept in separate cells at night but worked and attended chapel and classes together. This required the presence of prison warders to prevent communication between inmates, which, if detected, would be punished severely. Meanwhile, under the separate system, inmates were held in individual cells and even exercised and attended chapel in separated stalls.

Both systems aimed to prevent moral corruption by prohibiting communication. But, while the silent system promoted behavioural reform through work discipline, under the separate system offenders’ reform was to come from isolated inner reflection and contemplation of their sins, guided by a prison chaplain.

The lack of in-cell heating meant that, until a new wing was built in 1867, the cells at Beaumaris Gaol did not conform to government requirements for holding inmates under the separate system. It supposedly adhered to the silent system but repeated complaints from prison inspectors about the lack of prison staff and lax supervision of prisoners, the prison diet, the need for full prison clothing, as well as the lack of heating in the cells, all reveal a local magistracy resistant to central reforms and the expenditure that it would have required. In the male workroom, visitors can clearly see graffiti deeply inscribed in the tiled floor, suggesting a lack of supervision or at least leniency by staff.

The late introduction of the treadwheel in 1867 was no doubt a response to the Prison Act of 1865, which championed hard labour. But its installation for productive purposes – to pump water in order to address the problem of water supply – went against the grain of the legislation, which advocated deliberately pointless labour as a form of additional punishment The only successful escape from the prison (in 1859) also says much about Beaumaris’s attitude to central reforms: an investigation revealed that the prisoner had been wearing his own clothes for several weeks before the escape, at a time when inmates were required to wear prison dress at all times.

Beaumaris Gaol has been given little attention in the history of the modern prison: it is geographically and culturally removed from urban and anglocentric perspectives and its story casts doubt on the legitimacy of referring to the administration of 19th-century prisons as a ‘system’ at all. Historical research is increasingly revealing the continued level of diversity in local prisons throughout Britain, for example in Beverley, Carmarthen, Hull, Lancashire and Lincoln. But to assert that Beaumaris Gaol failed to adhere to forms of prison discipline promoted and legislated for by central government is not to say that prison life there was easy, although it may suggest it was a little more humane and more locally defined and negotiated. Before the 1860s male prisoners in Beaumaris may not have been subject to the severities of the silent system, but they did do hard labour – breaking stones or picking oakum (teasing out fibres from old ropes).

And though, by the late 1860s, the separate system was operated for only a small number of prisoners – and even then not rigidly, for example no mask or hood was placed on prisoners when they left their cells – inmates were still subject to punishment in the ‘dark cell’, where they were fed bread and water and could be placed in handcuffs.

The external appearance of Beaumaris Gaol, with its imposing and seemingly impenetrable high wall, still dominates the surrounding neighbourhood. Its sheer presence must have left the local population in no doubt about its deterrent message; it served its purpose in that respect. Certainly, this impressive heritage site gives visitors an insight into 19th-century prison life, but it also highlights the extent to which local authority remained important and continued to shape local institutions.

Five more places to explore


Ruthin Gaol, Denbighshire

There has been a prison on this site since the 17th century but the earliest part of the existing buildings dates from 1775/76. A large Pentonville wing (modelled on Pentonville prison in London), designed for the implementation of the separate system, was added in 1866 and is the most visually impressive part of this site. This large, light open wing, with its almost religious feel, suggests the extent to which the separate system was underpinned by an emphasis on spiritual change, as well as deterrence.

Find out more about how to visit Ruthin Gaol and book tickets with Visit Denbighshire


Dartmoor Prison Museum, Devon

Housed in the old prison dairy and still owned by the prison service, this museum has a traditional, hands-on feel to it, which adds to its charm. Dartmoor is one of the most important historical prisons in Britain. Opened as a prison for American prisoners of war in 1809, it was converted for use as a convict prison for more serious offenders in 1850 and so was in the vanguard of the gradual expansion of centralised state power regarding punishment. The iconic main entrance to the prison, which is still in operation, can be seen across the road.

Find out more about how to visit Dartmoor Prison and book tickets


Bodmin Gaol, Cornwall

As the current owners bought this large, forbidding and decaying prison as recently as 2004, Bodmin Gaol remains a work in progress.

Much of the original prison from 1778, based on plans from prison reformer John Howard, was destroyed during the building of an expansive new 220-cell prison in the late 1850s. This gaol has the only working execution pit in Britain, discovered during renovation in 2005.

Find out more about how to visit Bodmin Gaol and book tickets


Lincoln Castle Prison, Lincoln

Significantly, at this prison museum you can see the last remaining original separate system chapel in the world. Lincoln Castle’s women’s prison has been open to the public since 2005, while the larger Pentonville-style men’s prison is currently undergoing renovation, and should be open soon. During a recent dig on the site, archaeologists discovered a church thought to be at least a thousand years old.

Find out more about how to visit Lincoln Castle and book tickets


The Galleries of Justice, Nottingham

This museum is based in Nottingham’s old courthouse and gaol. The first such buildings on this site date from the 14th century but there has been much additional building over time, including the erection of additional wings between 1820 and 1840.

This museum has a national as well as local remit and holds the HM Prison Service Collection. On this site prisoners could be charged (in the early 20th-century police station), sentenced and executed.

Find out more about how to visit the National Justice Museum and book tickets

Dr Alyson Brown is a reader in history at Edge Hill University. Her most recent publication is Inter-war Penal Policy and Crime in England: The Dartmoor Convict Prison Riot, 1932 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)


This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine


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