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My ancestor served time in Pentonville Prison. What were living conditions like there for him? Some inmates broke down and ended up in an asylum
co-wrote Discover Your Roots and is a fellow of the Society of Genealogists (SoG). is the Genealogist at the Society of Genealogists (SoG) in London. is a historian, criminologist, research director and lecturer at the Open University.
QMy ancestor William Blythe was sentenced to 10 years’ penal servitude for his part in the manslaughter of a policeman during an altercation over poaching. He was sent to Pentonville Prison in 1880. I’ve read a lot about the separation system at Pentonville but was that still in operation in 1880? I’d love to know more about the conditions he experienced. Susan O’Hagan, by email
APentonville Prison was opened in 1842. It was seen by most prison reformers as a model institution for the new way in which it dealt with serious criminals. Each convict spent the first 18 months of a sentence in a solitary cell to consider his misdeeds, read his Bible (there was some education available that would enable this) and learn to recognise the value of real work rather than crime. The system did not work as expected. Some inmates broke down and ended up in an A newspaper report in the Alnwick Mercury detailing William Blythe’s murder trial in 1881 asylum; some resisted with aggression and were punished with violence. After six years, the period of solitary confinement was reduced to one year, and in 1853 it was reduced further to nine months.
Many of the bleakest aspects of separation had softened by the 1880s, but the prison remained grim and concerns were expressed about the system, not least before the Gladstone Committee, which reported in 1895 ( Report from the Departmental Committee on Prisons, Parliamentary Papers, [C.7702] LVI, 1).
Labour was generally unproductive and men were still unable to cope, destroying property, attacking fellow prisoners or staff, self-harming and occasionally committing suicide.
One of the most celebrated inmates during the 1880s was the socialist firebrand, later a Liberal MP, John Burns. He was probably treated much better than ordinary offenders and was not required to labour on the treadwheel or crank. He made much of the harshness of the conditions later in life, though probably overemphasised the extent to which he suffered (see the Burns Papers in the British Library and TNA HO 144/206/A479760/19, report to Home Secretary, 28 February 1888). Clive Emsley