Don't Know Dickens

Charles Dickens, that is.

Victorian Prisons: Don’t Go There

Many criminals were executed.

Get rid of ‘em. Ship them to America or Australia.

And what’s the problem with that? (Well, besides morality and human decency, that is.)

According to “A Victorian Prison,” “hundreds of offenses carried the death penalty,” but, by 1860, the popular thought was that prisons should be feared since transportations and executions were not working. With bigger cities that  meant a larger urban population and crime, the Victorians wanted to maintain control and order in the cities.

Probably the worst part (besides the executions) was the practice of the silent system that began after the 1865 Prison Act. As its name suggests, convicted criminals worked long hours in silence. At night they slept on wooden boards, and they ate the same food on the same day of each week (“A Victorian Prison”).

Hard Labor

In some prisons, convicts worked on the treadmill that may or may not have driven a

Hard labor using the treadmill.

flour mill or pumped water; in some prisons, “after 1865 most treadmills had no purpose other than the effort required from the prisoners themselves to operate them” (“Victorian Crime and Punishment”). Forgive the personal commentary, but that’s crazy! Working a machine for hours that did nothing! I understand that prison is not supposed to be a fun place, but punishment for the sake of punishment does not make sense.

In their cells, convicts might have picked oakum–which means they separated tarred rope into its individual fibres. “They then had to take these individual strands and unroll them, usually by rolling them on their knee using their hands until the mesh became loose,” (“Prisoner 4099”), which supposedly gave the prisoners time to reflect on their crimes. I’m sure that there was quite a profit in this business–for the prisons, of course. Is some activity better than none?

Picking oakum.

As terrible as the crime and punishment system were in the Victorian era, it is interesting how societies continue to struggle with what to do with people who have broken the laws.

Works Cited

“A Victorian Prison.”

“Victorian Crime & Punishment.”

“Prisoner 4099.”






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2 thoughts on “Victorian Prisons: Don’t Go There

  1. Truly amazing information! I love the illustrations

  2. “Don’t go there!” Love it. So glad you talked about the shipping of the bad (or reformed) ones out. Or sometimes, because the prisons were full and they couldn’t ship them out, they just kept them on the ships for a long time–so creepy. The conditions were even more horrific than in the “landed” prison. Magwitch, the criminal, from Great Expectations is held on one of these and escapes from across the marshes where he meets Pip and then continues on his journey changing Pip’s life by the chance meeting.

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