Victorian prisons

The Victorian era (1837-1901) was the most significant period of prison construction in UK history, and a significant number of these prisons are still operating today.

Victorian prison buildings

During the period 1842 to 1877, a total of 90 prisons were built or significantly expanded, as part of a concerted building programme.

Many Victorian prisons were built with a hub-spoke layout, with wings of cells organised around a central hub. All featured small cells intended for single occupancy, arranged along landings stacked three or more storeys high. Buildings were designed with clear sight lines, so that officers could see and be seen by colleagues and prisoners.

Victorian prison buildings were shaped by the requirements of the era. Cells typically had low, narrow cell doorways that fitted the average Victorian body. Candle alcoves were provided so that prisoners could read the Bible, and some cells with larger windows provided fresh air for prisoners with tuberculosis.

Victorian prison life

During the Victorian era there were more than 15 million prison admissions, with the majority of prisoners serving short sentences of less than one month.

From 1840, Victorian prisons typically operated under the Separate System, which aimed to reform prisoners through silent solitary contemplation. Communication between prisoners was forbidden, with prisoners spending much of their time in separate cells. The isolation of the Separate System led to increased rates of mental illness among prisoners.

Following the 1865 Prisons Act, prisons increasingly adopted the Silent System, which advocated reform via silence and hard labour. Prisoners were allowed out of their cells for work but were forbidden to speak to each other, with harsh penalties for those who broke such rules.

Victorian-era prisons today

Several of the prisons built during the Victorian period were subsequently closed, but there are 32 Victorian-era prisons still in operation in England and Wales today. These historic prisons hold 22,000 prisoners, equivalent to one-quarter of the prison population.

These prisons were either built during the Victorian period, or were existing prisons that were altered or extended during this period. Over the intervening years these buildings have been modernised and adapted for the changing needs of the prison system, and a changing prison population. The UK Government has closed several Victorian-era prisons, intending to replace them with modern facilities, but many older prisons continue to operate.

Sources and further reading

  • Prisons and Prisoners in Victorian Britain by Neil Storey
  • Victorian Prison Lives: English Prison Biography, 1830-1914 by Philip Priestley
  • The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society by Norval Morris and David J. Rothman
  • Pain and Retribution: A Short History of British Prisons, 1066 to the Present by David Wilson
  • Prison History website
  • Victorian Crime & Punishment website