It has been stated that Pentonville took its prisoners from far and wide. They had to be sentenced to deportation, they were approved to come, and had to be fit. The Medical Officer could and did reject some who arrived as not being fit for the regime at Pentonville. They all had to work, and they all attended chapel unless sick or in the 'Refractory Ward'. The only other exception was a single Roman Catholic prisoner, for whom at this stage no provision was made.

Prisoners were dressed in brown trousers and brown jackets and they wore a cloth cap with a large cloth peak, the peak had slits in it to enable the prisoners to see through. Whenever he left his cell, the prisoner had to drop the large peak over his face (to hide his shame.)

Pentonville was a `staging post' for the colonies, by this time largely Van Dieman's Island or Tasmania. The system was that the behaviour and industry of the prisoner whilst at Pentonville determined the kind of passage they faced when being transported. Those who were most industrious achieved 1st Class passes for deportation as against the lesser 2nd Class (Probation) and 3rd Class (chain gangs). The devise was that the period at Pentonville be a period of instruction and probation, rather than a goal of oppressive punishment. The Commissioners were though abundantly clear about the function of Pentonville.

"Considering the excessive supply of labour in this country, its consequent depreciation, and the fastidious rejection of all those whose character is tainted, I wish to admit no prisoner into Pentonville who is not sentenced to transportation, and who is not doomed to be transported."

"I propose, therefore that no prisoner shall be admitted into Pentonville without the knowledge that it is the Portal to the Penal Colony, and without the certainty that he bids adieu to his connections in England, and that he must look forward to a life of labour in another hemisphere."
"But from the day of his entrance into the prison, while I extinguish the hope of return to his family and friends, I would open to him fully and distinctly the fate which awaits him, and the degree of influence which his own conduct will infallibly have over his own future fortunes."

"18 months of this discipline appear to me ample for its full application. In that time the real character will be developed, instruction will be imparted, new habits will be formed, a better frame of mind will have been moulded, or the heart will have hardened, and the case will have become desperate."

"The period of imprisonment therefore, will be strictly limited to 18 months. At the expiration of this term your recommendation will be transmitted to the Secretary of State, which will affix the Class to which the convict will belong on his arrival in Van Dieman's Land. You will be mindful of the extent of discretionary power thus entrusted to you, which will have the effect of either punishment of a large body of criminals. You will use every precaution to prevent the operation of favour or caprice in the reports, which will decide or influence your judgement on the character and merits of each prisoner; recollecting always that on your decision his fate in the Penal Colony will almost entirely depend."

Despite all that was at stake in the longer term if prisoners misbehaved, the Governor was shrewd enough to know that many prisoners are incapable of that span of time in their rather impulsive approach to life. He was also concerned to ensure discipline was sustained on a daily basis. One of the strictest rules was the non-communication between prisoners, or the `silent system' as it was tagged. He was anxious that the message about punishment was actively promulgated. As he put it in his own words:

"With great deference I submit whether it may not operate beneficially, if occasionally, when severe punishment takes place, (especially where the offence is that of one prisoner seeking to communicate with another) the fact be made generally known. There is now an evident impression for some cause or other, originating possibly in what the prisoners have heard before they came here, that a very stern discipline prevails; but unless that impression is kept alive, by some knowledge of the punishments which are actively inflicted, there is a danger that every prisoner will claim for himself, at least a chance of offending with impunity; and that he will not understand his real position, until in his own individual case, he has paid the penalty for offending. I humbly submit, that by letting the prisoners occasionally know when severe punishment takes place (if done judiciously) there will be very little danger of tempting them to offend: and that in any event, the benefit will be far greater than the inconvenience of adopting such a rule."

On the other hand the Governor did not accept the word of staff without question. `William Prior report for misconduct'. See observation in Misconduct Book. I believe he was not guilty and the report originated in a mistake of the Trade Officer. He also, though, had a low tolerance level for those prisoners whom he found guilty of the misconduct, but repeatedly and doggedly denied it. For those he was liable to double the normal punishment. There is little evidence in his early writings of any use of corporal punishment. The normal punishment appears to have been a period in the `refractory ward' and punishment diet, even this was only for a period of 2 or 3 days.

It is not clear how prisoners were conveyed, but it must be assumed that on some occasions prisoners travelled overnight as there is an entry indicating that prisoners arrived at 6.30 in the morning. We already know that they came from far and wide; it is interesting to compile a list as it indicates the variety of towns and cities that had their own prison or lock up. This list is not exhaustive, but it included: Edinburgh, Ironmonger Lane, Salford, Hertford, Cambridge, Dover, Hereford, Newgate, Knutsford, Nottingham, Hull, Iselworth, Worcester, Southampton, St Albans, Maidstone, Bedford, Northampton, Preston, Exeter, Wisbech, York, Chichester, Glasgow, Paisley, Bury St Edmunds, Denbeigh, Ruthin, Lincoln, Warwick, Liverpool, Aylesbury, Walsingham, Swansea, Oxford, Stafford, Leicester, Dorchester, Taunton, Bodmin, Blackpool,
Dundee, Kirkdale, Iverness, Swaffham, Ipswich, Colchester, Derby, Newcastle, Oakham.

The Governor was able to report favourably in the early months on the behaviour, discipline, industry and fitness of the prisoners. There is always one that stands out like a sore thumb. His early bete-noir was John Thomas or No. 37,

22 January 1843; at 9 pm ordered No. 37 to cell 3 of the Refractory Ward for highly subordinate conduct in refusing to obey orders and creating a disturbance by ringing his bell repeatedly, cursing and singing. Prisoner states he was 15 months in Hereford goal and 9 months of that time in irons and many times flogged. His object seems to be to get out of the country and to that end in view to create an impression here, that he is wholly incorrigible.'

23 January No. 37 in Refractory Ward is not yet in the smallest degree subdued by his punishment, placed himself in a fighting attitude and threatened when he left his cell he would break every rule of the prison. Mr Crawford (Commissioner) visited the prison and I reported the case to him. He saw him in his cell.

24 January No. 37 removed from Refractory Cell to his ordinary cell at 9 pm.

25 January. All prisoners present at Divine Service except I sick and No. 37, ordered to remain in cell, there being reason to apprehend that he would create a disturbance in the chapel. Towards evening he expressed great contrition for his misconduct, promising not again to offend.

15 February. No. 37 wishes to see a Wesleyan Minister, he states 3 times a week. This is a troublesome prisoner. He behaves much better than formally though.

12 March. No. 37 was committed to the Refractory Ward at 1 o'clock pm for highly insubordinate behaviour. Last evening he refused to work and this morning he refused to eat. When his breakfast was taken to his cell he flung away his bread and dashed his cup on the floor; he used violent and threatening language. He has repeatedly asked for tobacco and because it is not allowed him, he acts in this manner.

14 March. No. 37 in the Refractory Ward remains unsubdued. He says he will do no work and will obey no orders unless he is supplied with tobacco.

15 March. Commissioner Crawford ordered that the close confinement of No. 37 should be prolonged until further orders from a visitor. No 37 remains unsubdued.

16 March. No. 37 by order of Mr Crawford was released from the Refractory Cell at the hour of 1/2 past 5 pm. Prisoner having expressed great contrition for his misconduct and promised to behave well in future.

23 May. No. 37 reported by Warder Trotter for addressing him from the Airing Yard and laughing at him in derision. I have enquired into the facts and do not consider the case as deserving of punishment, although one of great irregularity. I have severely reprimanded the prisoner, who meant no offence. The prisoner's conduct is I hope, improving, and he requires to be dealt with cautiously.

12 June. No. 37 having been reported for refusing to attend the chapel service, I have given written directions (having first conferred with the chaplain on the subject) that he shall not be permitted to attend either the chapel or school until he has become fully sensible of the privilege of being allowed to do so. The prisoner is a man of weak mind, of strong passions and of an ungovernable temper. I have tried various means to convince him of his error, and to induce him to amend his conduct. I am afraid he is incorrigible. 21 June. No. 37 punished for creating a great disturbance in his cell, by singing, whistling, ringing his bell unnecessarily and for highly insubordinate conduct in many other requests. 24 June. No. 37 released from Refractory Ward yesterday at 11.30.

7 July. Having received last night an order from Secretary Sir James Graham for the removal of No. 37 (John Thomas) to the Justice Hulk at Woolwich, the prisoner was this day removed accordingly at 11 am.

There are a number of poignant aspects of this saga. We have all met No. 37s and recognise all the behaviour depicted but rarely has it been set forth so succinctly and with such precision. The humanity and care with which Hosking approached his job shines through, as does the growing frustration and final despair that 37 is beyond redemption, and finally the transfer out. For a moment you forget this is 1843.

The other points are the limits of the Governor's power to segregate and the requirement to acquire the Visitors (predecessor of the Board of Visitors) authority to continue it. The other is the freedom of access to worship, but the authority of the Governor to remove that right if it is suspected the `privilege' is to be abused. Both these principles persist today. The final point is that during this period at Pentonville, corporal punishment was never used despite the provocation and the fact it was common elsewhere.

By the mid March 1843, there were 181 convicts in residence and the Governor was able to summarise the first few months and noted only 14 prisoners had been reported, and only 12 punished. There were only 10 cases of sickness, but with the exception of 3 these were very slight. `Prisoners generally are remarkedly healthy.' As so often, having made the above summary, events suddenly change. Prisoner Charles Shipley (No. 161) suddenly died at 12.15 on 26 March. The Governor was not pleased by this turn of events and it is of note how it is chronicled.

`Until 10 pm last night I was not aware that his case was attended with any danger. I visited him about 11 pm last night with the resident surgeon, who expressed his intention of seeing him again in the course of the night.

At 1 o'clock on 26 March, Governor dispatched a messenger to the Coroner, and to the prisoner's father, announcing his death. Between 7 and 8 pm I received a letter from the Coroner's office requesting further information. About 8 pm I dispatched that information in writing, it was delivered by Warder Simpson at the Coroner's office at 40 minutes past 8. I had visited daily since his reception in this prison.

28 March. A Coroner's Inquest was held on Charles Shipley, deceased: Jury `Natural Death caused by infusion of water on the brain.'
The deceased had been received from Newgate on 18 inst. having been certified by the surgeon of Newgate to be `free from any putrid or infectious disease and fit to be removed'. It appears in evidence that the prisoner had been under medical treatment in the infirmary at Newgate on the 18 inst. for chronic infection of the brain and kidneys.

I think the gist is that the Governor was not over impressed by his colleagues at Newgate!

On 1 April the Governor gives a detailed breakdown of how the 191 prisoners in residence were employed:

46Rug Weavers and Mat Makers
1  Nail Makers
1  No. 78 (with only one arm)
1  No. 192 (received only yesterday)
1  No. 84 (in the Infirmary)
1  No. 154 not yet appointed


On 2 April the Commissioners suddenly increased the daily allowance of bread per prisoner from 16 ounces to 20 ounces. No explanation is provided.

To illustrate that there is little new in the management of prisoners, and that after 160 years we are still wrestling with the same issues (with no clear solutions) the entry of 14 April is revealing. `No. 170 (subject to fits) had another attack about 7.30 pin yesterday. Feeling its approach he advanced towards the bell for the purposes of ringing it but fell before he reached it. He was shortly afterwards found by Warder Jenkins lying on the floor. I have directed the warders (especially those on night duty) frequently and at short intervals to inspect the prisoner's cell. I submit whether it is necessary to have a person in constant attendance on the prisoner. A warder cannot be spared without great inconvenience, more specially if night reliefs should be required.' A sentiment that all governors today empathise with all to clearly.

Another of these little oddities that appear in Journal, with no full explanation is the one for 12 April. `A sale of prisoners' clothes were affected on the 19th which realised an aggregate of £9/13/6d. If the prisoners were provided with prison clothing, were not being released again in Britain, it made sense to dispose of their own clothing. Where the sum raised went to is not clear, it is supposed it went into the running of the prison.

The rule about not communicating between prisoners was strictly enforced. Having said, the Governor was always considerate of the facts when weighing up the award. No. 178 for attempting to communicate with another prisoner in the airing yards (exercise compound) was not sent to the Refractory Cells but confined for 2 days in his own cell without work and without books except the Bible. Prisoner's conduct has hitherto been good, he acknowledged his offence and seemed penitent.

It may be of interest to list some of the incidents that led to prisoners being placed on report. Some of the behaviour will be no different to today. How matters were handled will indicate that procedures still in place in the 1970s emanate directly from this period.

`Punished No. 16 for laughing and grinning at Warder Heating.'
`No. 94 reported and punished for attempting to communicate with No. 2 in chapel.'

`No. 37 reported by Officer Trotter for addressing him in the Airing Yard and laughing at him with derision.'

`No. 81 punished for climbing up to and looking out of his window, standing on his stool and table, and denying the fact.'
`No. 172, 213 and 349 punished for talking in school, and No. 314 for leaning over his stall in school and touching the prisoner below him on the head with his book.'
`Punished 360 for insolence to Warder Clough for using intemperate and highly improper language, and for retiring to bed long before the signal bell had been rung, and for using improper means to clean his water closet.'

`Punished 346 for chocking his water closet with coir.'

`No. 66 is reported for having destroyed his trousers. The prisoner is a person of weak intellect and is in bad health, for which reason Dr Rees does not think him, at the present time, a fit subject for the punishment he merits. I have therefore not punished him.'

`Punished No. 58 for idleness and neglect in his work, and wilfully mismanaging the same, and for disrespectful conduct to the Deputy Governor and Trade Instructor. Prisoner is the most obstinate and sully man in the prison. He has been tenderly dealt with on account of supposed delicate health. Frequent complaints have been made against him for insolence, sulkiness and neglect of work. His health now appearing to be very good, it is time to bring him under the ordinary discipline. I have very little hope of doing anything for the prisoner in the way of information.'

`No. 306 reported for abstracting a duster and flannel floor cloth from a cupboard in the warder's cell. I have reported the case to a visitor (Mr Russell) in case he is of the opinion that 3 days confinement in Refractory Ward will not be sufficient for double offence. Mr Russell has committed No. 306 to 14 days to the Refractory Ward for stealing. 306 released by order of Rev. W Russell from Refractory Cell after 3 days. Has expressed contribution for his conduct.'
Here we have the Medical Officer `fitting the prisoner' for adjudication, still in place today. We also see the power of the Governor to order cellular confinement limited to 3 days and any extension of that having to be awarded by a visitor. This remained the position right through until the mid 1980's, the powers remained identical with the higher authority being vested in the Board of Visitors. It was only after the BOV ceased to undertake adjudications after one of those Headquarters Reviews, that the position changed. It was doubtful if Robert Hosking realised that Pentonville in so many ways was establishing penal procedures for the next 150 years, when he so eminently steered it in those early years.

It is of note that in those early years all the prisoners were C of E (with the exception of troublesome No. 37 who claimed to be a Methodist) and only one prisoner who was Roman Catholic. The Governor had to make special arrangements for him. He sought permission from the Duke of Richmond who personally approved the issue of 2 books `Reflections on the Great Truths of the Christian Religion' and `Prayers and Instructions recommended for the Use of Catholics'. Soon afterwards the Rev Hall, a Roman Catholic clergyman was appointed by the Commissioners to visit RC when required.

Prisoners were allowed to receive letters but at very infrequent intervals. `Received a letter being a communication of some importance for 224. After conference with the chaplain the letter was issued, although an interval of 3 months from the reception of the last letter by prisoner had not elapsed. In the 18 months that prisoners spent at Pentonville, they would receive only 6 letters. In August it is recorded that 2 letters arrived for No. 116, one from his wife and the other from a friend - he selected to receive the latter. The other letter was suppressed and filed.

Some prisoners although declared fit on admission to Pentonville, did not survive the course. The first was No. 83 who on 17 August was declared insane, and was removed to the Criminal Lunatic Asylum in St George's Fields, Surrey, on the order of the Secretary, Sir James Graham.

The next prisoner to leave was for a different reason. 'On 19 August at 5 minutes past 9 pm a free pardon under Her Majesty's sign manual was delivered to me by messenger from the Home Office. I consulted with the surgeon, as to the propriety of making a disclosure of the circumstances to the prisoner until the morning, and by his advice I determined not to do so, he being of the opinion that it would distort his night's rest and be prejudicial to his health, I communicated the fact at 20 minutes past 8 this morning.'

In the 2 years that the Journal covers, 13 free pardons are logged. Great care was taken with each. The entry for the 29 December reads `Received Her Majesty's Free Pardon for James Cunningham and Frederick Robinson. Robinson left the prison at 1/2 past 2 o'clock with his father. Cunningham will be put on the first steamer that leaves for Edinburgh, he having no friends in England. The entry the next day: `James Cunningham left the prison at 8 pm under charge of Extra Warder and was put on board the steamer for Edinburgh having been supplied by the steward with 5/- in money, and a postal order for 25/- and his passage paid to Leigh, agreeable to the order of His Grace the Duke of Richmond. The prisoners both supplied with Bibles by the Chaplain, by order of Major Jebb.'

Another reads: `Her Majesty's Free Pardon for Reg. No. 145 having arrived at a later hour last night, I communicated the fact to the prisoner this morning who (this day being Sunday) expressed a wish to remain until arrangements could be conveniently made for his being clothed in a plain suit, and inquiries instituted as to the best mode of returning to his home - Great Snoring in Norfolk. He will therefore remain until tomorrow.'

As indicated, prisoners had to be medically fit to qualify for Pentonville. Deaths in custody were few therefore in the early years (in contrast to other establishments at the time) they give insights into the regime and concerns of staff. In April 1844 the entry reads `It being apprehended that No. 429 was dying, I did note the suggestions of Dr Rees not to visit the prisoner that he might not be disturbed by the noise of shutting the doors.'

At the Coroner's Inquest on 429, to which a number of prisoners were called, the jury expressed themselves highly satisfied with the result of the inquiry. However the Coroner provided a `rider' and gave it as his decided opinion that the Pump Handlers were not suitable for men of low stature and highly recommended an alteration.

One of the last entries in respect of prisoners is about the concern shown for those who were seriously ill. `Prisoner No. 269 being dangerously ill has received permission under a written order, signed by the Medical Officer, and myself, to be visited by his friends in his cell.'

HMP Pentonville - 160 Years of History
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