John Howard (1726-1790)
Born in East London, John Howard, son of a successful businessman and Calvinist dissenter, was a sickly child and plagued by poor health much of his life. He was apprenticed to a wholesale London grocer but was released from his indenture at sixteen when his father died in 1742, and left him a small estate in Bedfordshire. While traveling to Lisbon after the devastating earthquake of 1755, Howard’s ship was captured by a French privateer. His subsequent imprisonment in France is considered to have been the inspiration for what would become his life’s work and passion.
In 1773 he was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire. Shocked by the conditions he saw in the county gaol Howard become an avid and seemingly tireless reformer. Between 1775 and 1777 he made 350 visits to 230 institutions in England and Europe and documented the conditions he saw in his highly influential The State of the Prisons in England and Wales. Until the end of his life Howard continued extensive fact-finding trips through Great Britain and Europe, later focusing on lazarettos (hospitals for patients with contagious diseases). Howard was on one such trip when he died of a fever in Kherson, in southern Ukraine. His name and cause lives on in The Howard League for Penal Reform, a British charity founded in 1866.