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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

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - Q & A -

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

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