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Home > Crime and Punishment in Durham > Life in Prison

 What were prisons like at this time?

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Some prisons, including Durham, were truly horrible places! Indeed, for some criminals execution might have seemed preferable.

Prisoners were kept herded into awful cells with no heating, no bedding and no sanitation (running water and toilet facilities). It didn't matter what the criminal had done or whether they were awaiting trial. Everyone was treated the same! It was hard in jail. Possessions were stolen from new arrivals, inmates fought each other, it was a life where the strongest ruled.

There tended to be little air, poor ventilation and there was nothing to do. Prisoners were regularly chained together, reducing the need for warders and making a saving for the private organisations that ran the prisons. Prisons were not run by the government but by private organisations for profit. The prisoners had to pay the wardens for their food and you even had to pay to be released! This practice was not outlawed until 1774.

There was also no segregation between women and men in early prisons and some women tried to get pregnant so that they could 'plead the belly.' This meant that if found guilty, she would be transported rather than executed.

Engraving of the condemened cell at Newgate Prison.

Engraving of the condemned cell at Newgate Prison. Taken from Illustrated London News, 29 Dec 1888. (DUL ref + 050 v093 1888)

By the early 19th century, however, voices urging reform started to be heard and acted upon. Campaigners such as John Howard, Elizabeth Fry and Joseph Gurney toured prisons across the country, published their findings and advocated change. Their suggestions were slowly taken up and conditions in prisons slowly started to improve.

In 1823, an Act was passed that introduced wages for gaolers and introduced a number of reforms, including the banning of alcohol and ensuring that women prisoners had women guards. Nearly twenty years later, Pentonville prison opened. This featured a new design called the 'separate system' which kept prisoners apart for most of the day. Most of the 90 new prisons opened between 1842 and 1877 incorporated some features of the Pentonville design. The government also started to take responsibility for prisons rather than leaving them in local control. By 1878 all prisons came under the control of the Home Office. Although still by no means a pleasant place to be, by the end of the 19th century prisons had improved beyond measure.


Extract of the table of fees in place at Durham Gaol in the 18th century.

Extract of the table of fees in place at Durham Gaol in the 18th century.



Conditions inside gaols were desperately awful. Rats and other vermin ran wild, spreading disease and infection such as gaol fever, a form of typhoid that killed most people it affected. In 1750, two convicts with gaol fever spread the disease at the Old Bailey court in London, killing over 50 people as a result. Mortality rates within gaols were generally high. It was estimated by 'The Gentlemen's Magazine' in 1759 that one in four prisoners died in gaol each year. This amounted to approximately 5000 deaths per year, a huge number when you consider that only 200 convicts were being executed each year.


Engraving of Elizabeth Fry.

Engraving of Elizabeth Fry. Taken from Fry and Gurney, A Tour of Prisons in Scotland and the the North of England, 1819. (DUL ref Routh 64 C 25)


Find out more about prison reform or discover what life was like in Durham prison by following the links below.

Find out more about Prison reformFind out more about Durham Prison


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