A short history: 800 years of British prisons

The evolution of jails from Magna Carta to modern day

Eight hundred years ago if you wanted to survive in prison you had to have money to buy food, blankets and fuel. And for the following three centuries, death was the most likely sentence. Thankfully things have changed.

Below is a potted history of prisons stretching back almost a thousand years – first in the form of an interactive timeline followed by a detailed history full of fascinating facts.


An 800-year timeline of British prisons 


Click on the image for an interactive timeline.


In the 16th century and earlier, those who committed crimes faced the gallows. Other punishments including the ducking stool, whipping and branding were used in public to set an example to deter others. Prisons or the dungeons were holding places for those awaiting trial or death.

Below is a history of British justice and prisons.


Magna Carta. Source: Flickr, Paul Sieka

1215 – Magna Carta heralded the beginning of judicial rights stating that no man may be imprisoned without trial by his peers.

Article 39“No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land.”

1300’s – Prison conditions are very primitive and jailers charge for everything: food, blankets and fuel. The “idle poor” are regularly imprisoned for “laziness”.

Gallows. Source: Flickr, Jaime Perez

1600’s – Growing opposition to the death penalty. Jurors begin to refuse to find thieves guilty of offences that would result in execution.

1615 The first written suggestion of prisons as an alternative to death and execution. Thomas More’s Utopia advocates imprisonment before the gallows as punishment for petty crime. Inmate numbers soar.

1700 – The industrial revolution and urbanisation leads to an increase of petty crime. British prisons are straining at the seams. Floating “hulks” in the Thames are used to absorb the rising prison population. A solution! Transportation for those who escaped the gallows. Prisoners provided slave labour for the British colonies from Virginia to Jamaica or Australia


Floating prison hulks at Woolwich. Source: Flickr, Lossow Vamp

1777 John Howard, High sheriff of Bedfordshire, studies prison conditions for 17 years and publishes a book called State of the Prisons in England and Wales. He criticises prisons as disorganised, barbaric and filthy. The influential Howard League for Penal Reform is named after him.

1800 – The birth of the state prison. Jailers are paid by the state and can no longer charge prisons for food, blankets and fuel. The first inspections are carried out by magistrates.


Elizabeth Fry plaque. Source: Flickr, sleepymyf

1817 – Elizabeth Fry, the first woman to take up the prison cause. Disgusted by overcrowding and inhumane conditions, she sets up the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate and persuades the Home secretary, Sir Robert Peel to implement prison reforms.

1842 – Pentonville prison, still in use today was built using the panopticon design to hold 520 prisoners.

1878 – The Prisons Act: The worst prisons are closed and John Howard’s reforms are finally introduced. The concepts of therapeutic incarceration and decarceration emerge amongst intelligentsia. Reformation was introduced as the main purpose of imprisonment and  hard labour was replaced with the ideal of productive labour and training in order to earn a livelihood upon release.

Reconstruction in the style of Pentonville prison cell. Source: Flickr, Amanda Slater

1922 – Insanity levels soar as a result of regimes of silence in prisons.

1935 – Prison wardens are renamed prison officers and the first training course is held at Wakefield Prison.

1948 – The Criminal Justice Act creates the model for modern day prisons recommending longer sentences to incorporate training and rehabilitation. Remand centres, detention centres and borstal institutions are developed.

1991 – The Criminal Justice Act introduced sanitation for all. New prisons were built with toilets and sinks, a fairly dramatic improvement!

1990’s The development of prisons designed, financed and built by private companies.

2014 – Prison Watch UK is founded!

Next week we take up the tale from the 1990’s and explore the path to privatisation. Looking at the principle and practice of a prison system that is moving away from state control.

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One Comment on “A short history: 800 years of British prisons”

  1. Good article but it’s a shame you missed out the introduction of the probation service as an alternative to prison and as a means of supervising licences.


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