“Where Mis’ry Moans”: Four Prison Reformers in 18th & 19th Century England

By the dawn of the eighteenth century prisons, or gaols (jails), had been part of England’s criminal justice system for hundreds of years. Gaols were typically small, usually housing only a few prisoners at a time. They were rarely purpose-built, and were often in the remains of an ancient castle keep or a single room in a gaoler’s home. Oversight and inspection were lax, and conditions—often dark, filthy and harsh—were unseen or ignored by the vast majority of the populace. Prisoners had to pay fees upon entry and release, and for food, clothing, bedding, etc. while imprisoned as the gaolers often ran the gaols as money-making operations.        

Imprisonment itself was rarely a sentence, except for very minor offences, such as vagrancy. Prisoners were generally in gaol because they were a) awaiting trial, execution or transportation to a penal colony; b) acquitted of a crime but unable to pay fees required for release; or c) debtors. In fact, by the eighteenth century fully half of the country’s prisoners were debtors. Regardless of the crime for which they were accused or convicted, prisoners were often housed in a single space, with men and women often together in the smaller gaols. Disease was rife and prisoners received scant, if any, medical attention. Gaols were often unheated; fresh water was not guaranteed, and prisoners were frequently kept in iron fetters. By the eighteenth century the need for prison reform was evident. Nineteenth century reformers built on earlier reforms to make gaols more humane and reformatory.  

This exhibit focuses on four English prison reformers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: John Howard, George Onesiphorus Paul, Elizabeth Fry, and John T. Burt. They built on the work of members of the House of Commons’ Committee Appointed [in 1728] to Enquire into the State of the Goals of This Kingdom, also known as the Gaol Committee. They influenced and were influenced by writers such as Cesare marchese di Beccaria (1738-1794), Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), and Samuel Romilly (1757-1818), among others. The exhibit title comes from the epic poem “Winter” by James Thomson (1700-1748), in which he refers to the work in of the Gaol Committee in England’s prisons: “Unpitied, and unheard, where mis’ry moans; Where sickness pines, where thirst and hunger burn.”  

This exhibit was curated by Margaret Peachy and Mary Person, Historical & Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library.

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