Black Country Muse


Prison Life and Treatment.


Non of the regions Prisons would have passed any kind of fitness test in Victorian times, or indeed, at any time before. The purpose of course, was punishment, no question of re-habilitation, just pure and harsh punishment. There are many people today who concider that modern imprisonment is far to soft, and that we should return to an era when things were much more basic. There are also many who believe that Capital punishment should return to the statute book. We even have an e-petition online, where you can cast a vote, for the matter to be debated by our chosen representative's in Parliament. The whole subject though, raises far more questions than answers. When a society turns it's back, and wipe's it's collective hands of the responsibilty of ensuring that the system is working properly, then the appalling conditions that were prisoners lot, can only get worse. The story below, is just one tale of many thousands that prompted reformers to seek changes. The changes took a long time coming, and the system we have today, is the legacy of those reforms. Thankfully, judicial state execution is not amongst them.

Tucked away, in the many archives on Prison's, are a number of Commisioned reports that make disturbing reading. This is from a report made in the 1850s, and would be fairlt typical of what some prisoners had to endure. In September, 1851, Edward Andrews, a young lad of 13, was convicted of " stealing garden fruit ", to you and I, a simple case of scrumping. In my younger days deserving of a clip round the ears, but in 1851, it warrented a months confinement. Which is exactly what he got. Almost a year later, in 1852, he was again up in front of the magistrates, this time for throwing stones in the street. Concidered to be serious enough at the time, for a further 14 days imprisonment. He came from large family, who lived in some ot the worst housing conditions the town had. He could neither read nor write, had no idea of what religion was, and had started a working life at 7 years of age. On both his short stays in the prison, he had caused no trouble, and was released on time. Alas, his freedom didn't last long. Times were hard enough when you only had yourself to feed, but a large family frequently went hungry, which may have prompted the young Edward to steal again. This time, 4lbs of Beef from a local shop. On the 28 March, 1853, he was sentenced to 3 months hard labour.

Now I've mentioned before in another post, just what hard labour meant when in prison. In this case, he was put to the " crank ", a contraption which had a weight attached, ( in his case, 5lbs ) and he had to turn the handle, 2,000 times before breakfast, which was at 8 am. 4,000 times before dinner, taken at 1 pm, and up to 4,000 times before supper at 6 pm. Failure, meant the task had to be completed before bedtime at 10 pm, supper being replace with bread and water. Sounds simple enough you may think, the down stroke on the crank took little effort, but it required a great deal of force to bring it back up, and restart the cycle. On that first day, 30th March, he failed, which was not surprising really, as any youngster, underfed, as children of the time were, would have been in the same position. He didn't complete the work on the next day either, so more bread and water. Someone in the prison must have given him a few tips, because subsequently, he did manage to do all the ' work '. One strict part of all the prisoner's live's, was the no talking rule. You could get away with the odd whisper or gesture, but certainly not talking. For transgressing this rule by talking in his cell, he was given, on 12th April, bread and water for the next 3 Sundays. The prison rations were meagre enough as it was, his strength, what little he had, began to wane. He failed on the crank again on 16th, more bread and water, and the next day he was reported for being for lazy. This called for another form of punishment for the young man, one that most people didn't yet know about.

No one knows who invented the " Strait Jacket ", bit it was designed to stop the many inbabitants of the Lunatic Ayslums from harming themselves and there keepers. Some bright spark at the gaol in Leicester, had come up with an alternative use. Strapped tightly into the jacket, it was found that a man, or woman I should add, could conviently be hung on a cell wall, from suitable hooks, while standing. Under any prison regulations, this was highly illegal, a rule, that almost every prison Govenor totally ignored. Edward Andrews now found himself in this position, trussed like a chicken, and left there for 6 hours at a time, for the next 2 days. Released from this and put to work the crank, he failed again, and he was given the usual bread and water treatment, and, the Strait Jacket as well. On the 22nd, the crank he was working was found to have been damaged, someone obviously told him how to do this, as they were fairly robust. Back to bread and water and hung up in his cell. The prison Governor spoke to him on the 23rd, asking him to behave, and telling him if he did, they would send him to a reformatory, where conditions would be better. Not only was young Edwards strength failing him, but the punishment he was being given was also affecting his mind. On the 24th, he was again in trouble, this time for shouting, and mouthing a few choice obcenities, which, given the circumstances, was entirely understandable. Bread and water, and of course the Jacket, was the result. 

You may be able to see, that at this point, Andrews was becoming rather desperate. Lack of food, the work at the crank, and being hung for 6 hours a day was taking it's toll on his mental health. On the 26th, he broke a bar on his cell window, ( he may have tried to hang himself ) and again damaged the crank. More bread and water, and this time he was hung on the hooks untill well past the normal time for bed. Come the 27th, and he managed to break the glass in the crank box, and was heard to loudly complain to a fellow inmate about his treatment. The usual scene ensued, bread and water, and he was put in his cell and told to remain standing until bedtime. ( this is unlikely to be true ) About 10 pm, the gaol's night watchman, was instructed to go to the cell, and tell the yougster he could now get into bed. Edward Andrews, just turned 15, was found hanging from from the cell window bars, suspended by the straps of  his hammock. He was already asleep, a sleep from which he would never again awake, the punishments he had endured, had proved to be too much. The resultant outcry, over the cruel and barbaric treatment of this young lad would later lead to, a scandal, a court case, and the dismissal of the Govenor and two others. As far as the records go, there was no appology, or compensation paid to the family,  for the disgraceful treatment to the lad. This may have been influenced by the knowledge, that his older brother was in another prison at the time, and his father was due to be sentenced for larceny as well. I'm on the side of the reformers when it comes to conditions like this.

On to Stafford prison, which was built in 1794, and where not was all as it seemed in 1835. The Governor in this Prison, was Thomas Brutton, and he had in his charge 360 Men and Women. He was also in charge of the " Bridewell ", and the Lunatic Asylum inmates. The Bridewell was a name used to describe a place where Debters, Vagrants, Petty Criminals, The Bone Idle, Naughty Boys, "Fallen Women ", and the other dregs of humankind were held for short periods. Mr Brutton was a very strict disiplinarian, no talking at any time, and no smoking were the rule's, and everyone, whether convicted or not, had to work. Shortly after taking over, some years before, he had completely stopped the meat ration, as he concidered it to be a luxury. He replaced it with a ration, per person, per week, of, 12 lbs of Bread, 7 lbs of Potatoes, 12 ounces of Oatmeal, and 4 ounces of Salt. Unless the Prison Doctor, declared a Prisoner to weak to work, that was all they got. No food of anykind, unlike other Prisons, could be purchased or bought in. The Prison had, according to him, 8 Treadmills, and at this date, ( so he said ) no Cranks in any cells. 6 of the Treadmills were for Pumping water, and 3 for Milling Flour. It took 10 men at a time to work each wheel, and there were 5 men. in relays to allow the others a 5 minute break every 15 minutes. This employed 90 men, and together with the 30 men required to grind the Flour, made 120 in all. The remainder of the Prisoners, ( some of them Women and young boys ) worked at Cloth weaving, ( For making Prison Clothes ) Tailoring, and Shoemaking. ( not very good ones it should be added ) No visitsor letters were allowed for short term Prisoners, and half the sentence had to be served, before the proper convicts had any contact with their relatives. The money earned by the prisoners, ( Excess Flour and Cloth was sold on the open market ) was supposed to paid when sentence was complted but many were lucky just to get their Train fares back home. ( Guess where the rest went.) Mr Brutton had just the 5 Turnkeys at the Prison, but asked for more, as he could not enforce the no speaking ban properly. He did not employ a Matron, and the care of the women was in the hands of the all male Turnkeys, day and night. This admission raised a few eyebrows, as the Gaol, had recently seen an increase in the number of births within it's sturdy walls.

A few years down the line, and a new Governor was in charge at Stafford Gaol, Major William Fulford, ex Royal Artillery, and, if anything, a bit more of a martinet. By now, 1863, the Prison had been enlarged, and now held 650, although plans were afoot to reduce, and expand some cells, by knocking down 144 of the older ones. He said that they had Treadmills, and at least 10 Cranks. As he hadn't had them installed, I wonder if a previous Governor, ( Thomas Brutton in 1835 ) had actually told the truth when asked. He added to the work carried out by the prisoners, with Mat Making, Repairing the actual Prison, Picking Oakham and Breaking stones. There were not, he said, enough Cranks, and only one Treadmill was now used for making Flour, although some of the cranks had been adapted to pump water. He was evidently finding it difficult to provide enough Hard Labour for those sentenced to this fate. He was also finding it hard to get some of the prisoners to work at all, so the amount of Floggings in the Prison increased to some extent. He said he did find though, that just like in the Army, a man thus Flogged, never refused to work again. Cheers all round then, for a Governor who stood for up for Law and Order.

Worcester had the distinction, although only a small Town, of having no less than 3 Prisons. The Old County Gaol, The City Gaol, and the newly built Model Prison. The County Gaol had grown out of the old House of Correction, run by a man of limited intelligence, William Davis, from 1783 - 1792. He ran a very tight ship, and when the County Gaol was ready, he was offered the Governorship, which post he took up in 1794, and continued for the next 25 years. It was not a happy place to be sent to. Davis, like his counterpaarts elsewhere, made every prisoner work, whether or not they had been sentenced to hard labour. There were workrooms for Hemp Pounding, Spinning, Weaving, Bag Weaving, making Linen Cloth, and Wool Spinning. In a workshop, the convicted made Flour and Corn bags, and also made prison clothes from the Linen. There was a strict policy of No Talking, and No Smoking. Punishment was the dreaded Treadmill, Cranks, or, although it wasn't listed, Solitary confinement for weeks on end. Mr Davis had a particular dislike of Poachers, and even those confined for a short period, he would put on the Treadmill. An exception, compared with other Gaols, was that work was paid for. This enabled the hard workers to purchase extra food, like meat and Potatoes, Shoes and Clothes, even Beer and Tobacco. No Wine or Spirits though, didn't want then too drunk to work. Rations though weren't up to much, at 1 and a half lbs of bread, 1lb of spuds, and a 1lb of meat per week, you would have had to work, or slowly starve. Every prisoner, before his/or her trial was "Ironed up ", thats to mean with leg chains, and primitive handcuffs. Including William Davis, there were only 4 other turnkeys, ( warders) and with over 230 people to control, they were taking no chances. Mr Davis had already had one rather embarrassing episode back in 1796, when three men escaped. They had collected all the stuff left over from the work they did, leather strips, linen, and weaving threads, and constructed a full length, and very strong flexible ladder. The walls only being between 16 and 18 feet high, it had been a simple matter to attach a brick to one end, and throw it over the wall until the brick wedged under the coping stones. He was also in charge of the Bridewell, where Beggers, Vagrants, Prostitutes, Drunks, Debtors, and " Disorderly Women " were locked up. His pay was £350 per year, he had a house, with coal, and candles supplied, his turnkeys were on £250 per year, housed, but without the coal and candles. The County of Worcestershire, for some reason, was always lothe to carry out executions, As an example, William Davis, in 1819, had 23 convicted men, under sentence of Death. Only one, John Harris, was actually executed, and this was for uttering base coin, which was a treasonable offence. It was almost the same in 1820, when Robert Hollick met his end on the scaffold at Redhill, for Highway Robbery. Prisoners for release, were supposed to be given 1and half pence per mile to get home, and the remainder of what they had earned. I say supposed, as Mr Davis was allowed to keep one sixth of the sum, and, as nearly all of the convicts couldn't read, whatever they got, they were grateful for. 

Down the road at the City Gaol, which was opened in 1819, the authorities having purchased the old Monastry and converted it into a Gaol, as the County Gaol was too expensive for minor offenders, things were not much better. It had been run by a Mr Griffiths when it opened, who held the post until his son, William Griffiths took over in the 1860s. Now there's an interestin story about the Griffiths family. William Grifftiths, born around 1760 was a game-keeper for the old Earl of Dudley, at the estate in Himley. In revenge, it's said, for laying a vicious mantrap that took off a Poachers leg, and got the poacher transported for 7 years, he was Murdered, on the eatate in 1807. He was slashed with a sickle, and his head was mangled with a man-trap. It's believed, that the Earl got his eldest son a job in Worcester, as head turnkey, under William Davis. This would explain why Davis disliked poachers so much. With a bit more of the Earl's influence, when the City Gaol was ready, the young Griffiths was appointed it's Governor. They never found out who had murdered his father, and his dislike of poachers continued. The City Gaol, in 1868, had 36 Male Cells, and 9 larger Cells for the women, but employed no female Matron, as the job was given to Griffiths wife for £30 per year. At times, there were over 100 male prisoners, and 40 females, although they were mostly short term sentences of 12 months or less. Meals consisted of mainly Porridge, Bread, and Gruel, and it was only on Holidays that Meat was served. The chief Warden, ( they had by this time changed the job title from turnkey ) was paid £1.1shilling a week, the next down £1, the next 18 shillings, and the Cook/Handyman, 15shillings. All were supplied with a suit of clothes and accomodation within the prison. Even for the short stay prisoners, a Treadmill had been installed, as had, the by now standard Cranks. It had become neccessary, during the 1840s, to extend the Cells, and to the horror of the old Griffiths, who was in charge, 2 convicts escaped by picking out the still wet morter, and removed the bricks. They were last seen, happily chatting away, on the bridge crossing the River Severn, heading for the hills of Wales. I hope they made it. There are Pictures of all the Prisons mentioned, in the IMAGES FROM THE FORUMS ALBUM, which can be found in the Gallery.