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The first on­line data­base of pris­ons in 19th-cen­tury Eng­land, with records of 843 in­sti­tu­tions, is now avail­able to search for free.

Prison His­tory ( pris­on­his­tory.org) was cre­ated by Dr Ros­alind Crone, se­nior lec­turer in his­tory at the Open Univer­sity, after she car­ried out the re­search project ‘Ed­u­cat­ing Crim­i­nals in Nine­teenth-Cen­tury Eng­land’, which ran from 2015 to 2018.

The aim of the project was to chart pris­on­ers’ in­struc­tion in read­ing, writ­ing and arith­metic in the 80 years fol­low­ing the re­forms in the 1823 Gaols Act. Dr Crone re­alised while car­ry­ing out the project that there was no sin­gle record of all of the pris­ons in Eng­land dur­ing this pe­riod. To fill this gap, Dr Crone and her re­search as­sis­tants com­piled the data­base with fund­ing from the Open Univer­sity and the Arts and Hu­man­i­ties Re­search Coun­cil.

There were two main types of prison in the 19th cen­tury. Con­vict pris­ons, which were built for more se­ri­ous of­fend­ers, were un­der the di­rect con­trol of the Home Of­fice, while lo­cal pris­ons were, un­til the 1877 Pris­ons Act, man­aged by dif­fer­ent lo­cal au­thor­i­ties. Con­vict pris­ons could in­clude pen­i­ten­tiaries, public works pris­ons and prison hulks, while types of lo­cal prison in­cluded gaols, bridewells and lock-ups, where pris­on­ers were held be­fore ap­pear­ing in the mag­is­trate’s court.

The Gov­ern­ment be­gan keep­ing cen­tral records of pris­ons in Eng­land fol­low­ing the pass­ing of the Gaols Act and the 1835 Pris­ons Act.

In to­tal, the web­site con­tains records of 418 lo­cal pris­ons, 378 lock-ups, 30 prison hulks and 17 con­vict pris­ons. Vis­i­tors can browse all these pris­ons on a map of Eng­land, or search the data­base for an in­di­vid­ual in­sti­tu­tion. The en­try for each prison in­cludes its ex­act lo­ca­tion on a mod­ern map; the type of prison; al­ter­na­tive names; ju­ris­dic­tion; county; the dates it opened and closed; and in some cases the num­ber of pris­on­ers it held. The lo­ca­tion of the prison’s sur­viv­ing records is also in­cluded.

Dr Crone said that prison records can help ge­neal­o­gists break down brick walls. “In the 19th cen­tury we have got this ex­pand­ing crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem that’s tak­ing more and more peo­ple into its am­bit. Peo­ple who are in­ter­ested in trac­ing their fam­ily his­tory should be in­ter­ested in pris­ons.”

She added that prison reg­is­ters in this pe­riod are “some of the most de­tailed records for in­di­vid­u­als we have”, in­clud­ing phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics such as height, and even how their fam­ily were find­ing fi­nan­cial sup­port with the bread­win­ner in prison.

The or­gan­is­ers of Prison His­tory are en­cour­ag­ing users to get in con­tact if they have any ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion about the pris­ons on the data­base.

They are also seek­ing feed­back on how re­searchers use the site, and how they would like it to de­velop.

Prison His­tory will re­ceive its for­mal launch at Redis­cov­er­ing the 19th Cen­tury Pe­nal Land­scape, an event at the Na­tional Jus­tice Mu­seum in Not­ting­ham on 6 July.

The data on the site is avail­able as a free e-book in PDF for­mat: pris­on­his­tory.org/fur­ther-re­sources.

In the 19th cen­tury we have got this ex­pand­ing crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem tak­ing more and more peo­ple into its am­bit

Wandsworth County House of Cor­rec­tion is in­cluded in the new web­site’s data­base

The site is a use­ful re­source if your English an­ces­tor spent time be­hind bars

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