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Life in Kent Gaols before 1877 / Life in Kent Gaols before 1877

Life in Kent Gaols before 1877

Prisons, before the late eighteenth century, were used largely for the safe keeping of prisoners awaiting trial or punishment such as execution, transportation or whipping. Alternatively, they were places of custody until debts or fines were settled. Half of all prisoners nationally were debtors. Since these were prisons primary functions prison occupants were generally small in number and their sentences were short. They paid their gaolers for board and lodging if they had the money to do so. Prison buildings were provided by local authorities. The idea of punitive imprisonment first came with the establishment of houses of correction by the Acts of 1576 and 1609. These were essentially criminal workhouses where 'rogues and vagabonds' could be set to work and were the complete responsibility of the magistrates.

Since Kent was divided administratively into two divisions there were county gaols at Maidstone and Canterbury.

The county gaol at Maidstone stood originally in the High Street. It was replaced by a new building in King Street to house both felons and debtors in the mid-eighteenth century. This new building was inadequate from the outset. When John Howard, the prison reformer, visited it in 1776 he commented on the smallness of its courtyards and the lack of air and light. His grim prediction of an outbreak of gaol fever or typhus fever, the louse-borne disease arising from overcrowding, was realised in 1783 when a score of prisoners, and a craftsman working at the prison, were carried off by 'a dreadful contagious disorder'. After a second visit five years later he noted that some improvement had been made. There was a separate, new debtors' prison and an infirmary, although the Ill prisoners still lacked a chapel.

At Canterbury the castle served as a county gaol until the late sixteenth century when a replacement prison was opened in Westgate. This was rebuilt after a fire in the late seventeenth century. After further enlargement in the eighteenth century the building was still inadequate and a new county gaol was erected at Longport in 1806. Both Maidstone and Canterbury also had houses of correction. So too did Dartford, Deptford and Ashford. Additionally each of the Kent corporate boroughs had its own gaol and house of correction. Most were inadequate and plagued by gaol fever.

In the late eighteenth century there was a dramatic increase in Kent's prison population caused by a general rise in crime, the temporary suspension of transportation during the American War of Independence and the growing use of imprisonment to replace it. This in turn led to the intensification of overcrowding and poor conditions in gaols. In 1789 a visitor to Maidstone county gaol reported that:

'The debtors occupied the same rooms which are crowded with too little air. There is no bath in the Infirmary. Twenty-two prisoners have just died of gaol fever. Thick wooden boards in the windows of the Infirmary obstruct the light and air. Divine service is performed on a staircase. Debtors and felons have an allowance of bread and beer and assize convicts 2/6d per week [for sustenance] Some of the prisoners desire to have their bread allowance increased tho' they were to have less beer. Irons on the felons were very light and they could take exercise. On July 15 1788 there were 61 convicts and 84 felons serving short sentences, and 31 debtors'.

When the same visitor visited the local house of correction he reported:

'The prison not clean; not whitewashed for some years; fowls in the court; no coverlets to the beds. Many prisoners in irons; employment the beating and spinning of hemp and the picking of oakum. Food a quartern loaf a day and water'.

Lax discipline, overcrowding and the uncontrolled circulation of large quantities of liquor
probably led to the armed mutiny of 1765 at Maidstone county gaol.

On the afternoon of 7 August, five prisoners, three under sentence of death, were being escorted to divine service by Stephens, the gaoler, who was carrying a hanger (a short broadsword). The prisoners' handcuffs were removed. Pingano, a Genoese, seized the gaoler's sword and stabbed him in the stomach. John Denne, the chaplain, was knocked unconscious and the convicts seized firearms and cutlasses hanging in the hall and freed their fellow prisoners, knocking off their irons. Holden, the turnkey, was forced to supply them with drink.

When the convicts were fired on from the town the fire was returned from the gaol. A publican, looking on was shot through the head and at eight O'clock the mutineers sallied forth, fired on those who attempted to stop them, leaving several wounded, and escaped towards Plaxtol. A party of soldiers arrived later in the evening and set off in pursuit. Ten of the prisoners were retaken a few days later after a fierce engagement in Rove Wood when the ringleaders, Pingano and Benvenuto, were killed. The remainder were tried at a special assize and executed in November on Penenden Heath. Stephens, the gaoler, also died. Denne, the chaplain, recovered from his wound but not his ordeal. Further breakouts were attempted in 1776, 1786 and 1788, but all were frustrated.

Maidstone County Gaol had, by this time, become the principal gaol in Kent. Increased urbanisation and a corresponding increase in crime, plus the fact that the gaol was the main county prison for debtors, meant that a much larger building was urgently required. The East Kent justices, however, refused to bear their share of the cost. A long delay was created by a lawsuit. The new gaol, with its individual cells and the separation of different types of prisoner suggested by John Howard, was not fully completed until 1819. It held some 450 inmates. The remaining prisons and houses of correction in West Kent then closed.

Initially, the principal occupation of the prisoners was the spinning manufactory but in 1824 a treadmill or treadwheel was introduced. This was a large, hollow wooden cylinder on an iron frame with steps 7 and a half inches apart, invented in 1815 by Sir William Cubitt to provide employment for prisoners. The convict, steadying himself by handrails on either side, trod upon the steps of an everlasting staircase, his weight causing the mill to revolve. The mill was used for grinding corn and raising water. Prisoners underwent a medical examination before being put on the wheel. They worked a six-hour day in two three-hour shifts doing fifteen minutes on and five minutes off, climbing in the course of a day the equivalent of 8640 feet. A second wheel, however, was without any productive function and marked the beginning of a changeover to punitive labour. Between them the two wheels could occupy over two hundred prisoners. Work on the wheel was conducted, like work in the manufactory, in silence. Prisoners were separated by partitions. Women, sentenced to hard labour, were occupied on the wheels as well as men. Labour in the heat was often unbearable but work was only occasionally suspended.

Under the Prison Act 1865 males over sixteen sentenced to hard labour were obliged to spend at least three months of their sentence on the treadmill or the handcrank. At Dover Gaol, which had no treadmill until 1866, six special cells were set aside for handeranking machines. These were narrow iron drums on legs with a handle on one side. When the handle was turned a series of cups in the interior revolved. A dial recorded the number of revolutions that the machine had made. Male adults were set up to a minimum of 14,000 revolutions a day. Failure to meet this target resulted in punishment or the withholding of food. This unproductive and soul-destroying activity was carried out in solitary confinement. Both handcranks and treadwheels were finally made illegal in l899.

Prisoners had been confined on prison hulks from at least 1594 when three men were sentenced to spend 38 weeks aboard the Mercaiye at Upnor. Not until the early nineteenth century did the Medway become a permanent hulk station. By 1798 Britain had taken over 30,000 prisoners-of-war who were imprisoned in either shore establishments or prison hulks. By the end of the French Wars in 1815 this number had increased to over 70,000 and hulks had become a necessity. Vessels, which were no longer needed for active service, were partially unrigged and moored at Chatham Reaches, Gillingham and Sheerness to become floating prisons for felons.

Life on board was grim and punishments were harsh. Men imprisoned in solitary confinement for ten days or more in the six foot square Black Holes' of the hulks, with little light, air, or food, sometimes went mad. The Sampson at Chatham, which housed recaptured prisoners who had attempted to escape from other hulks, was notorious for its disciplinary regime. Ultimately its inmates mutinied. The guards opened fire and a number of convicts were killed or wounded. Like the prisons ashore, the hulks were desperately overcrowded.

The Brunswick had 460 prisoners sleeping on one deck alone. Cholera, typhus and smallpox were rife. Those who died in the hulks at Short Reach were buried on St Mary's Island. Those from Gillingham Reach were interred in the marsh that became known as Prisoners' Bank. When in 1818 the expansion of Chatham Dockyard became paramount it was convicts from the hulks who provided the labour for this work including the reclamation of St Mary's creek. Meanwhile as the hulks deteriorated the authorities, with the intention of keeping this permanent labour force nearby, began construction of a new brick prison on St Mary's Island. In 1856 St Mary's convict prison opened for the reception of all the prisoners from the hulks at Chatham and Woolwich. As the hulks emptied they were burned or towed away to be broken up.

The hulks and their successor on St Mary's Island undoubtedly contained some of the most desperate and dangerous convicts in the land. Typical of the many incidents involving the hulks was the case of the Prompt from Leigh in the summer of 1816. When the vessel was off Gravesend 21 convicts, bound for the hulks before transportation, filed through their irons and to the terror of the passengers aboard burst through the hatches of the hold and threatened to murder both passengers and crew. After a desperate struggle they were overpowered by the crew and secured.

At St Mary's Island the deep-seated discontent of the 350 prisoners employed on government works at the Dockyard boiled over into a tumultuous riot on 15 February 1861. At dinnertime a convict found fault with the soup which was then thrown at the warders and around the mess hall. In the uproar that followed the prisoners brushed aside the 29 warders on duty and began to demolish the hall with stone hammers. Every pane of glass was smashed together with the window sashes and tables. Part of the roof was pulled off and the soup kettles and a supply of timber were hurled into the Medway. The alarm gun was fired at Chatham and the signal flag raised above the prison to warn of a potential breakout but no reinforcements arrived for nearly an hour. Meanwhile the handful of warders, their guns loaded with ball cartridge, held back the prisoners. When a heavily armed relief party eventually arrived the convicts were returned to the prison where they were kept in chains and the nine ringleaders closely guarded.

The arrival of Captain Gambier, Director General of Prisons, to investigate the causes of the riot, together with the rumour that the ringleaders would be flogged, was the signal for further disorder. The prisoners refused to recommence work. Fifty turned on the warders. Others joined them. The warders, outnumbered, were driven from the prison. The prison keys were seized and more convicts were released. A wholesale destruction of the prison interior then began. Furniture and windows in the cells were destroyed. The building was fired in a number of places and a mass escape was prevented only by the arrival of a thousand troops, each armed with ten rounds of ball cartridge, from Chatham garrison. While 700 soldiers marched in and drove the convicts back to their cells the remainder stayed outside to prevent any escape. A baton charge by warders then followed in which many convicts were injured. A warder, too, was seriously wounded before thirty of the ringleaders were chained together in one cell.

Next morning Gambier ordered forty prisoners to receive 36 lashes apiece. The punishment was inflicted by eight drummers in the presence of a strong body of troops. Fifty of the most desperate convicts were then transferred to the prisons at Millbank and Pentonville. Ninety more prisoners were then ordered to be flogged including their ringleader, Bassett, and also sent to Millbank and Pentonville the following day. One hundred soldiers with loaded rifles stood guard until morning when the savage punishment of the remaining mutineers was carried out. Every drum major in the garrison and drummers from every corps marched to the prison with punishment triangles and cats o' nine tails. They were joined by sailors from HMS Wellesley. The prisoners were stripped, flogged and taken in turn to the prison infirmary for treatment. The drummers and the strongest men in the Royal Engineers, who had been selected for the punishment detail, worked throughout the day. All convicts were then confined to their cells on a diet of bread and water.

Despite such draconian punishment discontent still simmered beneath the surface. A month later the prison governor, Captain Powell, learned of another plot to seize and fire the prison as the prisoners left their cells for morning work. Once more he called in a force of armed troops who surrounded the gaol while the ringleaders were clapped in irons. In December a convict was given penal servitude for life for the attempted murder of a warder.

A period of uneasy peace followed until further signs of insubordination manifested themselves in 1866. A wave of disorder throughout the prison threatened a mutiny similar to that of 1861 and again created alarm in Chatham and Rochester. After attacks on warders the Director General of Prisons arrived once more. Three convicts received 36 lashes and another 24 lashes. The malcontents were confined to the refractory cells for six months and subsequently were forced to work in chains.

Yet more trouble arose four months later from changes in the prison diet. A demonstration occurred at Sunday dinner. The ringleaders were put in irons and twelve were flogged. A week later a convict attacked a warder with a stone hammer. The warder died and the prisoner was executed for wilful murder but not before he had been bayoneted by a guard.

Further attacks on warders in 1868 produced the inevitable reaction. The three ringleaders underwent 'a punishment so severe that the shrieks of the men flogged were heard some distance outside the prison boundary'. A number of other convicts with long periods of penal servitude were sent to Gibraltar to work on its defences. There was no further insubordination at St Mary's at least for the time being. New buildings to house a further 300 prisoners were finished in 1870 and no less than 1,600 convicts became available for employment on the extension and enlargement of the Dockyard.

Nor were Kent's other prisons trouble-free during this disturbed period in the 1860s. In 1863 George Haver, a soldier from Shorncliffe Camp sentenced to two years imprisonment, stabbed the Governor of St Augustine's Prison during an inspection parade. His sentence was extended to twenty years penal servitude.

St Augustine's housed only just over one hundred prisoners and was generally regarded as one of Kent's 'softer' prisons with most inmates committed for under a month. Its diet was claimed to be 'superior to that of many workhouses and certainly better than that to be found in the home of many a struggling workman'. Yet when the cells were fitted with gaslights prisoners tried to warm their food over the gas burners. In 1867 the resident surgeon claimed that the punishment inflicted by nine hours a day on the treadwheel 'was increased by the paucity of the diet'. New and roofed treadmill sheds were not installed until the same year. H. Joy, the Maidstone surgeon, also found his prison's diet 'insufficient to keep the prisoners in health and to work the treadwheel.


Major Bannister, the Maidstone prison governor, had difficulty in preventing inmates from collecting and eating raw potatoes, potato peelings and dirty roots while a prison inspector reported 'the marks of starvation on some prisoners' faces in the wheel sheds'. Men on the No I diet lived almost solely on bread and water and were, he claimed, 'unfit to obtain an honest living when they left prison'. The Kent General Sessions in 1867 recommended that the sleeping cells should be warmed and ventilated at a cost of 25 shillings per cell and that the closets in the treadmill beds at Maidstone should be improved.

Many of these criticisms and improvements stemmed from the Government Act 1865 which laid down in great detail the conditions in which prisoners could be kept. Yet greater improvement and uniformity in conditions were made possible when prisons were nationalised by the Government in 1877. Even so a detachment of soldiers was still necessary to help suppress a mutiny at Maidstone Gaol in 1906. The mutinous convicts were removed to Dartmoor where they were sentenced to 50 days special diet and six months separate confinement.


Dr Paul Hastings and Ian Coulson