29 October 2009

Life in a London prison ca 1880

The following description of life at Coldbath Fields prison is adapted from a contemporary London newspaper account. Coldbath Fields, a London prison for those sentenced to less than two years, was quite close to the current site of the London Metropolitan Archives.

On entering the prison, and having been washed, a prisoner enters upon a first stage in prison life which extends over 28 days. During this period he is employed, in strict separation, for 10 hours daily on hard labour, 6 to 8 hours being on the crank or treadwheel. He has for breakfast 8 ounces of bread; for dinner a pint and a half of stirabout (a kind of porridge); and in the evening 8 ounces of bread. At night he sleeps on a plank bed without a mattress. If a man is in for a month, or any less, this comprises his daily life, his unvarying food, his unmodified couch.

In the second month of his sentence if he has earned his full measure of marks, he has a slight but appreciable amelioration of his lot. On five nights of the week he has a mattress, tasting the joys of the plank bed only on the remaining two nights. He has school instruction, may have schoolbooks in his cell, goes for a walk in the yard on a Sunday, and may, by diligence and general good conduct, earn a "gratuity not exceeding one shilling."

In the third month his daily labour is somewhat lightened, the weaning from the plank bed is advanced and he makes its acquaintance only once a week. In addition to schoolbooks he may have "library books" in his cell, and there is placed within his reach the possibility of a gratuity of 18 pence.

In the fourth stage the plank bed disappears from the scene, the prisoner is eligible for employment of trust in the service of the prison, and, in addition to the right to the intellectual and physical recreations already acquired, he may receive and write a letter and enjoy the company of a visitor for the space of 20 minutes -- privileges renewed every three months, with the extension of the period of a visit to half an hour.

Only the warders are allowed to speak, the prisoners permitted only to make monosyllabic responses to a warder's question.

Added Resource (5 Nov 2009)
The Internet Archive have recently placed Eighteen months' imprisonment : with a remission (1883) in their collection at www.archive.org/details/cu31924031279775. The author, Donald Shaw recounts his prision experience, much of it in Coldbath Fields prison.

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