England List of Notable Prisons (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Punishments[edit | edit source]

Until about 1800 over 100 offences, including many petty ones, incurred the death penalty and public hangings were commonplace. These fearful deterrents gradually disappeared once there was a competent police force to keep law and order in the mid-19th century. It should be noted that assize judges frequently commuted a death sentence to a lesser punishment, or to transportation. Public hangings ceased in 1866 and transportation to Australia in 1868, although it is interesting to note that imprisonment for debt (a civil offence) continued until 1869, and was only finally abolished in 1970!

Capital punishment was ended for pick-pocketing in 1808, for 100 lesser offences in 1823, and for house-breaking and sheep-stealing in the 1830s. By 1838 there were only three crimes on land which were punishable by death—treason, murder and attempted murder, and the latter was lifted in 1861.

Nottingham, once noted for its sometimes infamous sheriffs, is now has a national Law Education Centre with a museum, (The Galleries of Justice), with mock trials in the old courtroom and tours of the county gaol. These are vividly described and illustrated by the curator Connell, and by Nagle. If you have a convict or transportee this is a must see on a visit to England.

Barlow (Quarter Sessions 1778-1786. Family Tree Magazine. Part 3 in Vol 20 #12, page 60-62.) compares the punishments allowed by law with the records of charges, evidence and sentences in Hampshire, with illustrations of whipping at the cart’s tail and branding.

Imprisonment[edit | edit source]

  • Prisons

Prior to the 17th century there were many small gaols, lock-ups or cages in towns and villages with no national or county standards for the maintenance of the buildings or the prisoners. This changed in 1609 when each county was required to set up a county House of Correction, later known also as a Bridewell after a famous one in London. These were originally designed to house vagrants, beggars and unmarried mothers with hard labour as a remedial measure which was felt to correct their unacceptable behaviour. In contrast, gaols were used to secure prisoners awaiting trial, and those serving short sentences, who were often left idle and unemployed. Many debtors were gaoled for years until their families could afford to pay their debts. Food was not supplied, and prisoners relied on donations of food from family and friends, although if they could afford it the gaolers would provide such extras. There was also a system of taxes on parishes called rogue money for the relief of poor prisoners.

Over time county gaols and houses of correction occupied the same premises and were supervised by the same keeper from at least 1823. These joint institutions were now known asprisons and their management, including medical aid and provision of food, was undertaken by the county quarter sessions; Author David T. Hawkings has specific examples of diets and diseases of prisoners in gaols.

From 1597 convicted vagrants and criminals could be shipped off as prisoners, (transported), to work on plantations in North America and the West Indies (see TNA research guide L16). After the American War of Independence in 1776 this option was no longer available and prisons became seriously overcrowded. Convicts, particularly those destined for transportation, were housed in disused warships known asprison hulks, for example the Censor and Justitia moored in the Thames off Woolwich. Many others were established lower down the Thames at Chatham and Sheerness, and on the south coast at the ports of Plymouth, Devon and Portsmouth, Hampshire. Hawkings (Criminal Ancestors: A Guide to Historical Criminal Records in England and Wales. Sutton Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire,1996) mentions 26 others, and MacDougall (The Prison Ship Hero. Bygone Kent Vol 22 #12, page 721-730) has a well-illustrated history of the inappropriately named Hero (later re-named the Rochester) moored on the Thames. Cole (Questions and Answers (Hulk Ships). Family Tree Magazine Vol 19 #11, page 29, 2003) gives details on the Laurel and one of its prisoners, and reproduces a painting of 11 prison hulks at Portsmouth. Hawkings’ Short Guide has a useful summary of prison hulk records, and these are covered in detail in his book (48 Prison Registers and Prison Hulk Records. #48 in Short Guides to Records edited by Kathryn M. Thompson. Historical Association, London. FHL book 942 A3t v2 and on FHL film 0990062).

Transportation resumed in 1787 with convicts now being shipped to Australia until 1868, about 162,000 of them in total (see TNA research guide L17). There was also a small number of male convicts transported to Bermuda in the 1820s to assist in dockyard construction there. Penal servitude, (imprisonment with hard labour), instead of transportation was introduced in 1853 so the two forms of punishment ran concurrently for the period 1853-1868. Prisoners given sentences of transportation or penal servitude were termed convicts or government prisoners, and served their time in convict (or government) prisons. The vast majority of convicts never left the country but served remedial sentences, often of hard labour or including some form of corporal punishment in prisons around the country.

In 1850 there were over 17,000 men, women and children in prisons in England and Wales, most being short-term offenders. Tickets of leave were available to some who were nearing the end of a satisfactory sentence; these enabled them to be released on parole. Uniform standards of treatment began in 1865 after pressure from reformers and concomitant with declining transportation and increased police effectiveness (Friar). In 1870 the Home Office became directly responsible for the control and inspection of prisons, and launched considerable rebuilding programmes to accommodate the growing numbers of prisoners more humanely. They set new standards in their day, including the supervision of women prisoners by female prison officers and gaolers. Some of the most notable prisons in England are listed below, and their records are mainly at TNA.

Chart: Some Notable English Prisons

County Gaol Site and Name First used for prisoners
Bedfordshire Bedford County Gaol 1848
Berkshire Broadmoor State Criminal Lunatic Asylum 1863

Reading, County Gaol 1845
Buckinghamshire Aylesbury, Coounty Gaol (now a Youth Custody Centre 1845
Cambridgeshire Cambridge Gaol
Derbyshire Derby Gaol
Devon Exeter, County Gaol 1853

Princetown (Dartmoor) Convict Prison, originally for French POWs 1808
Dorset Dorchester, County Gaol 1853

Portland Convict Prison 1808
Durham Durham, County Gaol Pre-1877
Essex Chelmsford, County Gaol (now a Prison for Young Offenders) 1819
Gloucestershire Bristol City Gaol 1883

Gloucester, County Gaol c 1800
Hampshire Parkhurst, Isle of Wight (male juvenile offenders) until 1868. Parkhurst Women's Prison 1838


Portsmouth Convict Prison
Portsmouth City Gaol

Winchester, County Gaol 1855
Hertfordshire Hertford Gaol
Kent Borstal Prison, later Borstal Institution (Young Offenders)

Canterbury, County Gaol 1808

Chatham Convict Prison 1853

Maidstone, County Gaol 1817

Rochester Convict Prison, now a Prison for Women 1873
Lancashire Lancaster Castle 17th C

Liverpool City Gaol 1854

Manchester, County Gaol 1869

Preston, County Gaol 1799

Strangeways (Manchester) Prison
Leicestershire Leicester, County Gaol, later Convict Prison 1828
Lincolnshire Lincoln, County Gaol 1869
Middlesex Fleet (Debtors) Prison

Fulham Convict Prison (female) 1853

Holloway, City of London Gaol, now a Prison for Women 1853

King's/ Queen's Bench Prison, Westminster

Millbank Penitentiary (Convict Prison) c 1816

Newgate Prison

Pentonville (Model) Convict Prison 1842

Wormwood Scrubs Prison 1874
Norfolk Norwich Gaol 1892
Northamptonshire Northampton Gaol
Northumberland Newcastle-upon-Tyne Prison
Nottinghamshire Nottingham City Gaol 1890
Oxfordshire Oxford, County Gaol 1858
Shropshire Shrewsbury, County Gaol 1795
Somerset Shepton Mallet, House of Correction, and was a Military Prison 1939-1966 1610
Staffordshire Stafford, County Gaol 1845
Surrey Brixton Female Penitentiary (Convict Prison) 1853

Marshalsea (Debtors) Prison, Southwark

Wandsworth, County Gaol 1849

Woking Convict Prison 1853
Sussex Lewes, County Gaol 1855
Warwickshire Birmingham City Gaol 1845
Westmorland Appleby Goal
Wiltshire Devizes Gaol and Prison
Yorkshire Hull City Gaol 1869

Leeds City Gaol 1840

North Allerton, County Gaol, now a Youth Custody Center 1850

Wakefield, House of COrrection, later Convict Prison 1820

Life in prison is copiously detailed and illustrated by Hawkings (Criminal Ancestors: A Guide to Historical Criminal Records in England and Wales. Sutton Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 1996) which is the definitive reading material on the subject.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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