History of ‘TIME’ part 1.

To those that know and also, to those that don’t, I should point out that my title is indeed a reference to Stephen Hawking’s, ‘A brief history of time’. However, the only mention of General Relativity in this article, will be if an ex-governor or minister shared the same name.

I have always had an interest in history, especially in the history of our prisons. My passion for history, and researching, arose from the first and only English Pope, Adrian IV, real name Nicholas Breakspear, who was born in Abbots Langley near St Albans. – which, coincidentally, is where Stephen Hawking grew up after moving there with his family as an 8-year-old.  Another link to Nicholas was Henry II, although by the time of 1166, Nicholas had passed away. He died on September 1, 1159, allegedly choking on a fly in his wine.

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=226378

It is in 1166, and with Henry II, where I begin part one of my look at the history of the prison system of England and Wales. 


One hundred years after the Battle of Hastings, King Henry II orders the building of prisons. One of the first prisons to be built in London was Newgate. A prison that once occupied the site where the Old Bailey now sits. Newgate opened in 1188 and was active until closing in 1902, with the prison being demolished in 1904. It was during Henry’s reign that the precursor to common law was created and in order to settle land disputes, the jury system was created.

You will soon be able to read a ‘Guide to London Prisons: Past & Present’ via the website:

London Crime

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Which includes:

More details on Newgate, along with information; on those still in active use (in and around the capital) and the plethora of London prisons that no longer exist.

London Crime is an intriguing, gritty and captivating subject. London, England has a crime history that is full of real-life escapades, robberies, murders and other fascinating stories of criminal intent. BUT! Our intention is not to glamorise crime, this site is not about the London crime news of today, other news sites can do that!  although we are behind some great organisations that are aiming to reduce knife crime in the capital and beyond. We are providing fact (check out the A TO Z) films, documentaries, fiction books and non-fiction books, gifts and areas that you can research We at londoncrime.co.uk do not condone criminal activity and we fully support all of the London Police areas with their continuing mission to make the streets of London safe. An extremely tough job! 

A historic event that took place on the 15th June 1215, the signing of the Magna Carta, would see the early beginnings of judicial rights in England.

It included 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.”

The 14th century saw people being locked up for refusing to be tried by jury. The prison conditions were extremely primitive, with prisoners expected to sleep on bare floors. Fed bread and water and, only on every other day. The jailers would charge prisoners for everything, this included the removal of the prisoner’s restraints. As we head into the 15th century vagrancy was a massive social problem, the ‘Bridewell’ or House of Corrections was established to deal with the problem.

“The London Bridewell, set up in 1555, was the first ‘House of Correction’ and the term was often used henceforth to describe such institutions. The 16th cent. saw a massive increase in the numbers of poor and indigent, and houses of correction, with stern regimes of hard work, were used for the punishment and reformation of petty offenders or groups who were regarded as anti-social or idle, such as players of unlawful games, fortune-tellers, minstrels, tinkers and pedlars, hedge-breakers, vagabonds, and gypsies. In 1610 houses of correction were set up generally throughout England. The distinction between them and prisons was abolished in 1865.”

Mulholland, M. (2015). Bridewell. In The Oxford Companion to British History. : Oxford University Press,. Retrieved 8 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199677832.001.0001/acref-9780199677832-e-599.

Prisons at this time were also full of the ‘idle poor’, individuals locked up who were considered lazy, left to sit in prison until a magistrate decided they could be released. The gallows were a destination for even the pettiest of crimes, but in the 1600’s juries started to refuse to hand out the death penalty for low-level crimes, this meant prison numbers began to grow exponentially. A pardon was on offer for any petty crook caught who would enlist in the Army or Navy.

The 1700’s saw the start of the ‘Industrial Revolution’, however, as the century was ending and the revolution slowing down, citizens had been, and were, being displaced, debt became a huge problem, once again prisons had to deal with overcrowding. Then, with the ‘Napoleonic Wars’ of 1803 – 1815 where we would have an influx of POW’s, overcrowding worsened. ‘Hulks’ or derelict ships, used to house prisoners, began to be seen on the Thames and in the ports of southern England.

To ease pressure on our prisons, and in a move considered somewhat more humane than the death penalty, prisoners were ‘transported’ to North America. A practice that continued until the ‘American War of Independence’ of 1775 – 1783, a point at which up to 50,000 former prisoners had settled. However, it would only cease to America, as Australia would become the new destination.

A story I was told years ago, has now found a use in my life. As the American War of Independence put an end to transportation to North America, and before we began sending ships to Australia. Prisoners, awaiting transportation, were held in ships on the Thames. One of these ships bound for Australia was moored at Millbank prison in London, on the shirt pockets of prisoners aboard this ship were the initials P.O.M prisoner of Millbank.

A plan of the emigrant ship St Vincent. © National Maritime Museum, London

The first ship left for Australia a few years after the War of Independence had ended. The last convict ship to leave England for Australia was the ‘St Vincent’. She arrived in 1853. However, transportation continued to Western Australia until, in 1867 the ‘Hougoumont’ would be the last ship to leave these shores, she arrived in WA in January 1868. Between 1788 and 1868 over 800 ships carried more than 150,000 halfway around the world.

In 1777, the High Sheriff of Bedfordshire – the man who the Howard League for Penal Reform is named after – John Howard publishes the ‘State of the Prisons in England and Wales’, following a 17 year study of prison conditions. 1791 would see English philosopher Jeremy Bentham design his infamous ‘Panopticon’, his vision of an ideal prison. A design where prisoners could be unobserved, unaware, by guards. His design was never put to use; however, the model was used to build a few prisons, Pentonville and Millbank – which, opened in 1816, and was the first state prison in England – among them.



One of Howard’s proposals made in 1777 was that jailers were to no longer charge prisoners for anything. In 1815 jailers begin to be paid, finally, by the government. It was the duty of a magistrate to inspect prisons but in 1835, prison inspectors, who would report back to parliament, were introduced. By 1877 all prison staff were not only salaried, but also, employed on merit.

I have served a number of years in HMP Norwich, where two of the wings still carry the names Fry and Gurney, although they are still referred to as that by the, for want of a better phrase, hackneyed staff, they are now known as single letter wings.

Elizabeth Fry and her brother Joseph John Gurney are two people I greatly admire and respect. In 1817, they were responsible for the creation of prison schools for children, with their mothers, behind bars. They also persuaded Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel to introduce reform. Elizabeth was also the founder of the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. In 2002 Elizabeth Fry started to appear on five-pound notes.

“The Prisons Act of 1877 transferred complete control to the Home Office. At the same time the prison environment was made increasingly harsh in the belief that prisons should act as a deterrent to criminal behaviour.”


John Howard’s reforms were accepted, the prisons came under national control, overseen by the Prison Commission. Who were tasked to report annually to the Home Office. The ‘ACT’ also saw two new methods introduced: ‘Decarceration’ – This replaced prison time with punishment to be served in the community. ‘Therapeutic Incarceration’ – Introduced to minimise the punishment element. Makes one think as to how much has really changed since.

Table showing the % number of cases of illness to the number of prisoners passing through each of the Metropolitan Convict Prisons in 1854.


Number of Convicts passing through the Prison during the year.

Number of Cases of Illness during the year. % of Illness to the Number of Prisoners.
HULKS (“Defence” and “Warrior”)1,51372347.7
MILLBANK (including females)2,65911,890447.1

Source: http://www.victorianlondon.org 


As we head into the 20th century we see a lot of changes to our criminal justice system. Voluntary organisations began sending missionaries to the police courts, defendants would be released with the condition they reported to the missionary and accepted guidance, this would be the precursor to the modern-day probation service. In 1907 this was turned into what we now know as probation orders and this year would see the first community sentences. One later, with the Prevention of Crime Act 1908, the borstal system was created, this act recognised that adults and children should be held separately – I was fortunate that the borstal system ended in 1983, I entered the system as a 14 year old in 1985, although they were then called Youth Custody Centres, I can assure you the old system and values were still alive – In 1919, jailers become known as prison officers for the first time. The practice of separate confinement, which was criticised for creating high levels of insanity among prisoners was abolished in 1922, a year which also saw 400 volunteer teachers begin working in prisons. In 1933 the first open prison opened at New Hall near Wakefield. Prison officers were slow in implementing reform, so in 1935 the first staff training began at Wakefield prison. The outbreak, and years, of the second world war would also see a rise of female prison officers. 1948 would see an act introduced that is the model for prisons today, the Criminal Justice Act which ended flogging, penal servitude and hard labour.

HMP Wormwood Scrubs was taken over by the War Department for the war effort during WW2, the prisoners shipped out to other prisons. The prison was then used as offices during the war, housing among others, members of MI5 and MI8.

Coming up in part 2, I look at penal life following the introduction of the 1948 Criminal Justice Act and what the map of our prisons looks like now. Before I go, here’s a video from British Pathé, showing various shots, with no sound, of the buildings of Dartmoor Prison in 1950.


One thought on “History of ‘TIME’ part 1.

  1. Loved reading this Hope you are well Jen x

    On Sat, 8 Jun 2019, 10:24 Journey of a reformed man, wrote:

    > David Breakspear posted: “To those that know and also, to those that > don’t, I should point out that my title is indeed a reference to Stephen > Hawking’s, ‘A brief history of time’. However, the only mention of General > Relativity in this article, will be if an ex-governor or ministe” >

    Liked by 1 person

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