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National Archives 2009

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Prison - Five Hundred years of life behind bars
Edition: 1st
Format: Hardback
Author: Edward Marston
ISBN: 978 1 905615 33 9
Publishers: The National Archives
Price: 18.00
Publication Date: January 2009
Publisher's Title Information

Five hundred years of life behind bars
Main selling points
Popular and accessible history of life behind bars, from medieval times to the end of corporal and capital punishment in the 1960s
Tells the dark history of notorious prisons that overshadowed lives - Dartmoor and Pentonville, Marshalsea and the Fleet, Holloway and Reading, rotting hulks and the Tower of London
Reveals the stories of real prisoners including the unknown, the notorious and the celebrated
Features dramatic and previously unseen material from the National Archives: photographs, plans, case notes, letters and reports

This compelling history of our most feared institution charts the growth of prisons across the country: castle dungeons and decaying hulks, the dreadful Fleet and Marshalsea of Dickens' novels and the soulless structures of Dartmoor and Reading Gaol. Drawing on rarely seen material from The National Archives, it vividly portrays aspects of prison life that stayed constant for centuries: loss of liberty, privacy and comfort; hard labour; restricted rations; solitary confinement; corporal punishment and execution - as well as tracing key developments such as Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, the Victorian spate of prison-building, and successive reform Acts. The book also relates the curiosities, abuses and scandals that occurred within prison walls, from the racking of Henry VIII's enemies to the force-feeding of suffragettes centuries later.
At the heart of the book are dramatic stories of the men, women and children who lived -and died - behind bars. Their extraordinary tales range from those of political prisoners incarcerated in the Tower of London to celebrities such as Oscar Wilde who wrote so movingly of his imprisonment at Reading Gaol. Prison tells the stories of wartime convicts, suffragettes and highwaymen, cult criminals such as the Krays and 'ordinary' prisoners like armed robber James Edward Spiers -who in 1930 committed suicide at Wandsworth Gaol in front of a group of JPs gathered to see him receive 15 lashes. There are also fascinating accounts of officers, governors and executioners as well as reformers like John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, who spent their lives seeking to improve the lot of prisoners within.

Life behind bars
1 The Great Gaols of London;
2 The State of 18th-Century Prisons;
3 Rat-infested Prison Hulks;
4 A Most Victorian Zeal;
5 No Place for a Woman;
6 Suffragettes and the New Century;
7 Prisoners of Two World Wars;
8 The Last Executions;
Sources & Reading;

Edward Marston is a renowned writer of historical fiction and non-fiction. His most recent books include Murder on the Brighton Express and Soldier of Fortune (2008), and John Christie (2007) for The National Archives. He taught drama in prison and has a strong interest in penal conditions and reform.

Prison has always played a part in my life. As a boy, I cycled past Cardiff prison on my way to school, wondering when my next-door neighbour would be released and how long it would be before his next conviction. Then, while acting in a student production at Oxford, I visited the prison in the hope of persuading the governor to let us perform the play there. Built on the site of a medieval castle, the prison incorporated many of its features, and you could almost feel the accumulated weight of past prisoners' oppression and despair.
After graduation I led an evening class at Winson Green Prison in Birmingham, teaching drama to ten or twelve inmates in a locked room. The limited space meant that we were largely confined to recording plays on a tape recorder provided by the prison Commission. The prisoners especially enjoyed Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for God, two dramas about people killing time, as well as Sam and Bella Spewack's comedy My Three Angels, set in a penal colony in French Guiana around 1900.
Sessions were lively and there was always a warm response to the plays. The mood changed abruptly on 19 November 1962, when I arrived on the eve of an execution. There was a tense atmosphere in the prison and mingled fear and resentment among the inmates. My students worked hard on Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for a couple of hours, and I thought I'd taken their minds off the hangman. As I left, however, one of them asked me if I'd like to bet on whether the condemned man screamed as he was taken to the gallows. I declined the invitation.
All that I knew of the case at the time was what I'd read in the Birmingham Mail and heard from the prison staff. It was only while researching this book that I was able to look at the relevant file in the National Archives (PCOM 9/2209) and discover the full details. Oswald Grey was a 20-year-old Jamaican immigrant who shot dead Thomas Bates, a shopkeeper, before stealing money from the till. When arrested, Grey still had ten rounds of ammunition on him. The jury needed only a quarter of an hour to find him guilty.
In a touching letter to his father, Grey showed genuine remorse and was clearly bewildered by what was happening to him. He was assessed by a consultant psychiatrist as having the mental age of a ten-year-old. During his time in prison, he was quiet but cheerful, playing board games with the officers. He was hanged on 20th November by Harry Allen, assisted by Samuel Plant. Cause of death was given as `fracture dislocation between the 2nd and 3rd vertebrae'. The length of the drop was seven feet nine inches. After the execution, it was an inch and a quarter longer. Other macabre details may be found in the file; what if not recorded is the profound effect that the event had on the entire prison population, inmates and officers alike.

The emphasis in this book is at all times on the stories of individual prisoners and prison reformers. Through their experiences, I have tried to build up a picture of what it was like to be incarcerated during period of some five hundred years or more. Throughout that time, the nature and purpose of imprisonment changed radically and evolved into, the system we now have today. There has been no room to discuss the many significant improvements that have taken place in recent decades or indeed to discuss certain aspects of prison history, such as borstals alien internees and prisoners of war, which merit their own studies. Al that I have tried to do is to find a narrative path through the mass of available material and let a large number of faces peer out over the high stone walls.
Edward Marston

Edward Marston draws on his experience as a writer of crime fiction and non-fiction with a long-standing interest in penal conditions and reform, and experience of teaching drama at Winston Green Prison in Birmingham. He also uses the resources of the National Archives, retelling the stories of men, women and children who lived behind bars, taking in Sir Thomas More, Oscar Wilde, and Mary Wade who was transported to Australia at the age of eleven, and John Lee, the man they couldn't hang.
Although the subtitle of the work details five hundred years, he actually begins nine hundred years ago with the Norman Conquest, and the building of the Tower of London, which in the Tudor period became the focus of the monarch's power. So the Introduction details the medieval years, when payments for all aspects of prison life had to be paid for by the inmates, who were often subjected to harsh conditions, punishments and ordeals.
The first chapter deals with the great gaols of London, beginning with the Tower, but also cataloguing the Clink, the Marshalsea, Newgate, the Fleet and the Compters - Bread Street, Wood Street and the Poultry. In all these establishments, overcrowding, disease and starvation were the order of the day.
The eighteenth century is explored in chapter two, bringing to light transportation, torture and the public executions at Tyburn, which attracted great crowds, and became scenes of entertainment. The great prison reformer John Howard also appears in this chapter, being the Sheriff for Bedfordshire and visiting all the prisons in England and Wales - the details were published in his book of 1777.
When overcrowding reared its head in the prisons, as men and women awaited transportation, the solution was to press hulks - worn-out warships often moored along the Thames, and the Medway. Although intended to be temporary stop gaps, they remained until 1859, and many prisoners perished on board these black holes of disease and dirt, and their use is detailed in chapter three.
At the same time, reform was brought to bear upon prisons, and this is outlined in chapter four, incorporating the twin planks of silence and solitude, intended to induce remorse and repentance, but sadly often creating suicide or madness. Pointless labour was the order of the day - the treadmill, the crank, picking oakum or shotdrill.
The place of women in Victorian prisons is explored in chapter five, focussing on the work of Elizabeth Fry and the support that she gave to women and their children in prison during this period.
Two different categories of prisoners are covered in chapters six and seven - the suffragettes and conscientious objectors - both treated with severity by the prison authorities, with the mistaken aim of changing their views. The final chapter details executions and the hangmen, and the changing attitudes to capital punishment that finally led to its abolition.
In the details and descriptions of various individuals who went through the prison system, the author paints a moving picture of how prisons impacted the lives of ordinary people caught up by the criminal justice process. It is these pen portraits that are the most poignant parts of the book. We are left with questions about the point of it all - reform or punishment, correction or coercion ? The balance between these conflicting aims has yet to be found, and the question remains open as to the efficacy of imprisonment in dealing with offenders.
This is a book that is detailed, yet still gives the broad impact of the policies that evolved over the years, authoritative yet moving at the same time. It could well be read by the general reader curious to know more about prisons, and also by serious students of the criminal justice system.
Terry Nowell


"Internet Law Book Reviews" Copyright Rob Jerrard 2009