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Crimes et criminels

Feet of Marble or Feet of Clay? John Howard and the origins of prison reform in Britain, 1773-1790 

Neil Davie


The publication of John Howard’s The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777) has traditionally been considered to mark the starting point of a concerted prison reform movement in Britain. However, for many recent commentators, Howard’s was simply one voice among a choir of critics of the unreformed prisons; and someone, moreover, whose personal failings limited his impact. It is further suggested that other factors – notably the rising prison population, the suspension of transportation and the outbreak of disease – were ultimately more important in explaining the emergence of a campaign for prison reform. Based on a new analysis of Howard’s seminal work and its context, this article will argue that neither recent nor more traditional accounts capture the full significance and impact of the man’s actions and writings in this period, and that the book’s striking combination of exposé and plan of action, of criticism and exhortation, succeeded in transforming the debate on penal questions.

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1In March 1796, two marble statues were unveiled in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. The work of leading British sculptor John Bacon the elder, the commissions – the first of their kind to be permitted inside St Paul’s – have been described as “a pivotal turning point in the history of public sculpture” (Burnage 25). One of Bacon’s statues was of prison reformer, John Howard, who had died six years previously. The St Paul’s statue, completed the previous year, depicts Howard in classical robes, seemingly about to stride purposefully off his plinth, a large key in one hand, and, in the other, a scroll, bearing the words “Plan for the improvement of prisons and hospitals”. Strewn around his sandaled feet are miscellaneous broken fetters, chains and blocks of stone. On one side of the plinth is an inscription, attributed to his cousin and life-long friend, Samuel Whitbread – who had also contributed a significant sum towards the cost of the statue (British Library Add. Ms. 26055) – which includes the words,

Our national prisons and hospitals, improved upon the suggestion of his wisdom, bear testimony to the solidity of his judgment, and to the estimation in which he was held. In every part of the civilized world, which he traversed to reduce the sum of human misery, from the throne to the dungeon, his name was mentioned with respect, gratitude, and admiration. […] He trod an open but unfrequented path to immortality, in the ardent and unremitted exercise of Christian charity. May this tribute to his fame excite an emulation of his truly glorious achievements (cited in Brown 597).

2Whitbread’s epitaph epitomises what I call here the “feet of marble” representation of Howard and his works; one seen as early as 1792 in the first biography of the reformer by his editor and friend John Aikin (Aikin), and repeated in numerous biographies, articles and visual media during the following century (Brown; Taylor; Dixon; Field; Guy). It is an account which stresses Howard’s piety, self-sacrifice and enlightened benevolence, and implies that his tireless efforts over a period of nearly twenty years had single-handedly launched Britain on the road to penal reform. The publication in 1777 of Howard’s celebrated work, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales: with Preliminary Observations, and an Account of some Foreign Prisons, is understandably seen as of particular significance in this regard (Howard). The book, and notably its long fifth section, based on 553 prison visits carried out by Howard between late 1773 and the beginning of 1777, is credited with provoking a near instantaneous shift in opinion on penal questions among policy-makers and the broader public. In the words of one of his nineteenth-century biographers, William Hepworth Dixon, the publication of The State of the Prisons “created an extraordinary sensation. […] From that date the attempt to reform our criminals acquired a substantive form and character.” Writing from the perspective of 1850, Dixon concluded that “the impetus given by [Howard] to practical reforms” had “caused the perfection of discipline to be achieved” in the subsequent half-century (Dixon 211, 228). That this narrative did not die with the nineteenth century can be seen in the most recent biography devoted to Howard. In The Curious Mr Howard: Legendary Prison Reformer (2011), historian Tessa West describes the immediate aftermath of the publication of The State of the Prisons in terms which, in their essentials, differ little from those of earlier biographers like Aikin or Dixon:

So, The State of the Prisons was sent out to the world. […] And it worked, for the tome had an immediate impact and won readers over to his point of view. No one criticised him for invention or exaggeration […]. He became a celebrity in the sense that he was celebrated for spending years working in appalling, dangerous places in the company of – according to most of the population – appalling dangerous people (West 227-28).

  • 1 Howard was under no illusions as to his own shortcomings in this respect. He confided in a letter t (...)

3However, by the time The Curious Mr Howard was published in 2011, this triumphalist account had been under attack from a number of quarters for some time, and an alternative interpretation of the man and his works offered in its place; substituting, as it were, “feet of clay” for feet of marble. In particular, Howard’s decision in 1781 to withdraw from a three-man government committee set up in the wake of the passage of the 1779 Penitentiary Act, and tasked with choosing a site for the construction of the country’s first national penitentiaries (to be run along similar lines to those he had recommended four years earlier in The State of the Prisons), has variously been criticised for showing a lack of perseverance, for its obstinacy, narrow-mindedness and dilettantism; as an illustration of a domineering manner willing to brook no disagreement, and as proof of a desire on Howard’s part to jealously guard his status as the country’s sole expert on penal matters (Southwood 84; Howard 166; Cooper 81-84; West 234-35). In short, as historian Robert Alan Cooper puts it (83), “Howard’s self-centred behaviour doomed a project that was in harmony with all his ideas on the subject.” Perhaps the most vociferous criticism emanating from this group of scholars can be found in the work of criminologist Rod Morgan. In an article for the journal History, he summed up Howard as a man with “the advantage of modest wealth but few personal gifts.” As for The State of the Prisons, he describes it as merely a “grim and tedious catalogue, […a] poorly written and painstaking work, laboriously descriptive of several hundred prisons”. Offering as it does “little discussion of broader ideas”,1 Morgan considered it “remarkable” that the book “should have become such a landmark in penal policy” (Morgan 388, 391).

4Other sceptics have questioned whether the book should deserve “landmark” status at all. Roy Porter, for example, argued that it was fundamentally mistaken to see Howard as a solitary reformer, a voice in the wilderness:

The heroic view of Howard as lone ranger – darkness reigned and Howard rose and all was light – is no longer acceptable. Howard was one voice among a choir of critics of primitive prisons. […] In the last third of the century, numerous reformers debated about the health of prisons in the context of wider anxieties about epidemic disease and the salubrity of close-packed populations: hospitals, ships, hulks, camps, factories, workhouses and urban slums […].

5Porter went on to argue that prison reform in the second half of the eighteenth century should be seen above all as a pragmatic response to a short-term crisis in Britain’s prisons:

Population rose; crime rose; the prison population grew, especially when transportation of felons was drastically interrupted by American independence […]. And the upshot of overcrowding was typhus […] it was epidemics not Howard that got reform rolling. (14-16)

  • 2 As Howard continued his travels and collected more information, sometimes returning to a particular (...)

6The intention in this article is to suggest an alternative to both the feet of marble and feet of clay interpretations of John Howard and his works by taking a fresh look at The State of the Prisons, and notably its central fifth section referred to earlier, a veritable gazetteer of English carceral abuse and misery, based on those 553 prison inspections Howard carried out between November 1773 and January 1777.2 Howard had launched himself into an intensive schedule of prison visiting, first in the counties surrounding his native Bedfordshire, and then further afield, during his tenure of the county shrievalty in 1773-74. Astonished to learn that inmates in the county gaol in Bedford (for which as county high sheriff he had responsibility) were prevented from being released after acquittal or at the end of their sentences because they were unable to settle their bills with the gaoler, Howard sought to abolish the system of gaoler’s fees and replace it with a permanent salaried position, only to be told by county magistrates that such a change could not be countenanced unless a precedent could be discovered in another jurisdiction. In a highly unusual – and no doubt unexpected – move (for the position of county high sheriff was generally considered above all an honorific one), Howard decided to investigate the matter himself:

I therefore rode into several neighbouring counties in search of a precedent; but I soon learned that the same injustice was practiced in them; and looking into the prisons, I beheld scenes of calamity, which I grew daily more and more anxious to alleviate. In order therefore to gain a more perfect knowledge of the particulars and extent of it, by various and accurate observation, I visited most of the County-Gaols in England. (Howard 2)

  • 3 Only in 1785 in fact would Bedford magistrates vote their gaoler (also coincidentally called Howard (...)

7His first visit, on November 4th, 1773, took him to the county gaol in nearby Cambridge (West 128-29). More than three years and 553 inspections later, and with still no sign of that elusive precedent, Howard decided in January 1777 to interrupt his schedule of visits to travel to Lancashire to his printers in Warrington to prepare his findings for publication (Davie ch.1).3

8It will be argued in this article that while it is important to take on board the political, administrative and intellectual context sketched in by Porter above, and reject what he terms the “lone ranger” thesis of much earlier work, it is also misleading to see Howard merely as “one voice among a choir of critics”; a description which underestimates significantly the originality of The State of the Prisons. A recognition of the latter requires in turn looking rather more closely than has generally been the case at what exactly Howard is doing in that work, and how he does it.

A “grim and tedious catalogue”?

9The fifth section of The State of the Prisons, entitled “A Particular Account of English Prisons”, comprises more than two-thirds of the book’s 479 pages. It is here that we find Morgan’s “grim and tedious catalogue, […] laboriously descriptive of several hundred prisons”. Morgan’s description is accurate enough, but it misses an essential point: it was precisely the work’s relentless cataloguing of the minutiae of the country’s local prisons, “methodically digested, and with every mark of the utmost fidelity laid before the public”, as one enthusiastic contemporary reviewer put it (Sentimental Magazine 177), that gave it its power to shock and move readers, with its “melancholy chronicle of damp, dark, dank, airless cells, famished prisoners, negligent authorities, apathy, corruption, disease and death” (Porter 9).

10It has been known for some time that the condemnation of prison conditions and the widespread misery, corruption and abuse to be found behind their walls pre-dated Howard’s researches by several decades (Beattie 569-73; McLynn 296-97; Hardman). Indeed, by the mid-eighteenth century, it had already become axiomatic to describe prisons, as Henry Fielding had done in 1751, as “seminaries of vice and sewers of nastiness and disease” (quoted in Ignatieff 52). Moreover, some of the key recommendations Howard would make in 1777 regarding such issues as isolation, hygiene and prison labour had already appeared in print. One historian has recently unearthed what he terms “a rash of proposals” for root and branch reform of the country’s prisons in the years immediately preceding the publication of The State of the Prisons, many of them sharing Howard’s emphasis on the importance of reformation through work and solitude (Throness 140-42). However, Howard’s contemporaries generally chose to approach the issue of penal reform from a philosophical, theological, literary, legal or medical perspective. Perhaps the most well-known of this group was Jonas Hanway, who published a series of pamphlets in the 1770s and early ’80s championing “solitary imprisonment”, both for its deterrent and reformatory benefits. On the latter point, Hanway claimed that isolation had the power to “creat[e] a real change in the heart, to raise theirs that are fallen; and guard those who are most subject to be assailed. The tears of repentance will flow, where the succours of mercy are offered by the hand of humanity; and the sympathy of our common nature” (Hanway 44).

11The State of the Prisons offered something very different. As Jeremy Bentham observed in a letter of 1778, here was testimony firmly anchored in one man’s personal experience. Howard’s book, Bentham wrote, was

  • 4 This description of the Howard credo was confirmed by the man himself in a 1789 letter, where he wr (...)

[…] a model for method and for the sort of stile that is competent to his subject. He carries his plan with him in his head. He is set down at the door of a prison, makes enquiries under a certain number of heads which exhaust the subject, does his business and drives off again to another. His thoughts, his conversation, his writings are confined to this one object. […] He is accurate to the extreme: takes nothing from report: and asserts nothing but what has come under the cognizance of his senses. (Bentham to the Rev. John Forster, Apr./May 1778, repr. Sprigge 106-7)4

12Reading Howard’s book, this “doggedly empirical” inquiry with its several hundred pages of virtually raw information, must have been an “arduous” experience (England 206-7; Innes 162), but it may have seemed strangely appropriate to contemporaries, given the subject matter, that nothing had been added, nothing taken away – or so it seemed.

13Observe, collect, collate, conclude: this was the mantra of the inductive method sweeping through a whole raft of observational sciences in the late eighteenth century, one that would establish its epistemological grip on western thought for the next century and a half. This was where The State of the Prisons brought something new to the debate. There was nothing particularly unusual in this period about local gentlemen of a scientific bent interesting themselves in such subjects as meteorology or new, improved strains of crops – as Howard himself had done in the 1750s and ’60s (though probably few would have gone as far as rising at 2am every night to note down a thermometer reading from their garden) – but he was one of the first to seek to extend such methods of empirical observation and systematic data collection to the investigation of social problems and policies (West 59, 74, 96-7; Ignatieff 52). Howard belonged to a small, miscellaneous group of philanthropists, magistrates, clergymen, jurists and physicians who set to work from the 1770s to bring the inductive method to bear on a variety of social problems. Their investigations concerned both those issues susceptible to legislative solutions (such as poverty, vagrancy and crime), and those which, at that period, were addressed chiefly by means of local or philanthropic initiative (such as disease, ignorance and religious apathy). Information-collecting initiatives launched by government departments or – more often – by parliamentary select committees (notably in the field of poor law administration, a hotly-debated topic at that time) both drew on, and in turn stimulated, local and private inquiries of the kind undertaken by Howard (Innes 157-59).

14In this context, the absence of any broader discussion of the philosophy of punishment in The State of the Prisons could be seen as a virtue rather than a weakness. Rather than theorising and pontificating on Britain’s prisons – which could have been dismissed as the partisan and ill-informed rantings of a malcontent – Howard offered his readers, professionals and laymen alike, the apparently unmediated observations of his own senses:

I have described no Prison but from my own examination at the several dates set down before the number of Prisoners. I entered every room, cell, and dungeon with a memorandum-book in my hand, in which I noted particulars upon the spot. My descriptions will to some readers appear too minute; but I chose rather to relate circumstances, than to characterize in general terms. By these, the Legislature will be better acquainted with the real state of Gaols and Magistrates will be able to judge whether the Prisons over which they preside, and to which they commit offenders, be fit for the purposes they are designed to answer. I might add, that a variety of descriptions may possibly suggest something useful in the plans of such Prisons as may hereafter be erected; since whatever may appear worth copying may be extracted from any.
I have here and there taken the liberty of pointing out what seemed to me, as I viewed a Prison, an obvious remedy of some defect that happened to strike me. But I did not examine with the accuracy of a Surveyor; and hope I shall not be thought to direct in the style of a Dictator. (Howard 149-50)

15There are even some personal touches:

It was not, I own, without some apprehensions of danger, when I first visited the prisons; and I guarded myself by smelling to vinegar, while I was in those places, and changing my apparel afterwards. This I did constantly and carefully when I began; but by degrees I grew less cautious: not only because use abated the force of noxious impressions upon me, but also on account of the alteration made in some gaols by the act for preserving the health of prisoners. […]
Air which has been breathed, is made poisonous to a more intense degree by the effluvia from the sick, and what[ever] else in prisons is offensive. My reader will judge of its malignity, when I assure him, that my cloaths were in my first journeys so offensive, that in a post-chaise I could not bear the windows drawn up: and was therefore often obliged to travel on horseback. The leaves of my memorandum-book were often so tainted, that I could not use it till after spreading it an hour or two before the fire: and even my antidote, a vial of vinegar, has after using it in a few prisons, become intolerably disagreeable. I did not wonder that in those journies many gaolers made excuses; and did not go with me into the felons wards. (5, 13)

  • 5 Again, the comparison with early ethnography springs to mind. Geertz’s discussion of Raymond Firth’ (...)

16Through the inclusion of passages like these, Howard’s book functioned like the studies of the best modern ethnographers, who, as one of their number puts it, “need to convince us […] not merely that they themselves have truly ‘been there’ but […] that had we been there we should have seen what they saw, felt what they felt, concluded what they concluded” (Geertz 16). Howard’s literary alter-ego is thus that of the reasonable observer, well-informed and meticulous, but human; modestly risking health, and possibly life and limb5 in the interests of the social good, so that legislators and local officials might have the facts at their fingertips before acting.

17In reality, responsibility for the vast majority of prisons Howard had inspected lay with local magistrates, not with central government, and while there was a legislative framework regulating local gaols, thus leaving room for parliamentary intervention, he was aware that the success or failure of his proposals would depend ultimately on the state of opinion on the county benches. For in the absence of any effective machinery for bringing local sheriffs and magistrates to book, there was clearly the possibility that statutory commitments were going to be more honoured in the breach than the observance, though the possibility of a stinging rebuke from an Assize judge, an unwelcome question in Parliament or even the risk of private prosecution, might make justices think twice before wilfully ignoring their statutory obligations (Innes 31-32).

18However, The State of the Prisons did more than simply acquaint county sheriffs and magistrates with the carceral reality on the ground; it also provided Howard’s readers with recommendations in order to remedy the many defects in both prison buildings and prison regimes he had observed during his visits. Interestingly, Howard has been taken to task by modern critics both for his “mild words”, considered to fail to lay the blame unambiguously at the door of the county sheriffs and magistrates for the venal gaolers and crumbling, noisome establishments in their charge; but also for “a conspicuous lack of tact” in neglecting to take into account the sensibilities of those very same local interests (England 214; Cooper 84). A close examination of The State of the Prisons reveals that both of these criticisms are wide of the mark.

The Howard method in action

  • 6 This jurisdiction included the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshi (...)

19A few examples will have to suffice here to indicate the Howard method at work, based on a study of his visits to the thirty-two prisons of central England which came under the jurisdiction of the Midlands Assize Circuit (Howard 269-310).6 For each of the region’s thirty-two prisons, Howard recorded the results of his inspections, including repeat visits, over the period 1773-76, always using the same headings: Gaoler, Prisoners, Chaplain, Surgeon, Remarks and Table of Fees. The larger county prisons (which housed a miscellaneous population of offenders awaiting trial, as well as debtors and felons destined for transportation or the gallows) tended to receive the most detailed coverage – and more follow-up visits – while the smaller lock-ups, often with no more than a handful of inmates (and occasionally none at all), were given a more summary treatment, often no more than a few lines (see Davie 43ff.).

20Occasionally, the region’s smaller penal establishments were the subject of a rather longer entry, generally when conditions were either better or worse than average. This was the case for example for the town gaol in Birmingham, which Howard visited twice in 1774 and 1776. The description starts as follows: “The Gaol for this large populous town is called the Dungeon.” One senses that Howard’s readers must have guessed at this point that this was not going to be one of those better than average establishments. He goes on:

The court-yard is only about twenty-four foot square. Keeper’s house in front; and under it two cells down eight steps: the straw is on bedsteads. On the right hand of the court two small night-rooms for women; and some rooms over them:- on the left hand is the Gaoler’s stable, and one small day-room for men and women; no window:- above is a free ward for Court of Conscience Debtors, who are cleared in forty days: this is a sizeable room, but has only one window eighteen inches square. Over it is another room, or two.
In this small court-yard, besides the litter from the stable, I saw a stagnant puddle near the sink, for the Gaoler’s ducks. Gaoler’s poultry is a very common nuisance; but in so scanty a court it is intolerable. – The whole prison is very offensive. – At some particular times here are great numbers confined. Once in the winter 1775 there were above 150, who by the care of the Magistrates had a proper supply of food, broth, &c. – Licence for beer: Fees £ 0: 2: 0: no Table [of fees]. Clauses of Act against Spirituous Liquors not hung up.
Debtors Prisoners
1774, Nov. 10, 7 - - 2,
1776, Sep. 11, 7 - - 5. (274-75)

21The more detailed reports on the Midland circuit’s county gaols provide a particularly revealing insight into the Howard method. As in the case of Birmingham’s “offensive” town gaol, he does not mince words when it comes to characterising what he considers sub-standard accommodation for prisoners or other unacceptable features of a prison’s construction or regime. This is the most well-known feature of The State of the Prisons, but as we shall see presently, not the only one. One of his better nineteenth-century biographers summarises effectively the catalogue of abuses revealed by Howard’s researches:

The want of a fixed amount of food – a proper supply of air and water – the dark, damp, noisome dungeons – the inconvenient sites – the tyranny of petty officers – the extortion of interested keepers – the want of room and of bedding, or straw – the pernicious custom of selling spirits in the gaol – the promiscuous intercourse and contamination of age and sex, tried and untried – the use of irons – garnish – gaming – fees, such are the chief points in our gaol system to which attention is specially addressed, with a view to their modification and improvement. (Dixon 209)

  • 7 Aikin recalled (66) that the “additional matter” added to The State of the Prisons on the eve of pu (...)

22Leicester’s county gaol, which Howard visited on no less than five occasions between 1773 and 1776, provided grist for his mill on several counts. He found the general atmosphere in the prison to be “close and offensive”. One of the communal cells housing the prison’s fifteen or so debtors came in for particular criticism: “a long dungeon, which is down seven steps and damp; two windows; the largest about a foot square.” The point is hammered home in an incriminatory footnote (a Howard speciality),7 where he cites a pamphlet referring to the very same “low moist dungeon” at Leicester being used to house debtors as early as 1691. After noting that the prison’s felons, usually no more than half a dozen, were also accommodated below ground, he goes on:

Court-yard small. No chapel. Two rooms lately built for an Infirmary: but the situation of the Gaol is so confined, that it cannot be made convenient or healthy. In 1774 three debtors and a Felon died of the Small-Pox. Of that disease I was informed few ever recover in this Gaol. (277)

23Before bringing this grim account to a close, however, Howard notes that every year the county’s grand jury organises a collection in the parishes to raise money to clothe and in some cases discharge debtors; with part of the monies raised used “in feeding and warming all the Prisoners in the inclement season.” A certain John Simpson Esq. is complimented for his “faithful and assiduous” work in managing the fund, and more generally Howard invites every county to “imitate this exemplary benevolence” (278).

24What we see then in this account of Leicester County Gaol is a forthright condemnation of inhumane and unhealthy conditions, but one which chooses not to single out particular individuals for blame. Certainly, the names of the gaoler, chaplain and surgeon are listed at the beginning of the entry, as, at the end, are the magistrates who have put their names to the prison’s “Table of fees”. However, none are linked directly to the long catalogue of the prison’s woes. There is no negative counterpoint as it were to offset the praise heaped on Mr Simpson. The same picture is repeated elsewhere: the underground accommodation for male prisoners at Coventry’s city and county gaol, which Howard visited in 1773 and twice in 1776, although built only two years previously, is described as “dirty, offensive and unhealthy” (274), while at Lincoln Castle, inspected on a total of four occasions in 1774 and 1776, the accommodation for felons is described as follows:

First, by a trap-door in the said pavement you go down ten steps to two vaulted dungeons for Criminals, eight feet high; one the Pit, fourteen feet by twenty-one, window two feet by fourteen inches; the other within it, the Condemned Cell, fourteen feet by eight; window about nine inches by eighteen: a little short straw on the floors: both dungeons dirty and offensive. (274)

25Howard concludes that “The whole Prison is out of repair”, but adds, in possible mitigation (or could it be humour?): “– Perhaps because the County designs to build a new one” (296). Similarly, for Coventry, the reproving tone of the entry is somewhat lessened by the fact that although the prison was built in “a close part of the City”, there had previously been talk of building it on “a fine spot which some Gentlemen very judiciously preferred” (273).

26In some of the other entries for the Midland circuit, Howard found more grounds for optimism. The county gaol at Derby, which he visited four times between 1773 and 1776, is singled out for particular praise. Although his report includes some negative comments regarding the debtors’ floors (“not easily washed”), the women’s night-rooms (“too close”) and the windows (“in general too small”), these details are overshadowed by the positive features he found at the prison: its “airy healthy situation”, “properly separate” court-yards, “neat” chapel, and “new” bath. Howard also describes “a new room or parlour at the Keeper’s house with windows to the Felons court: this circumstance keeps them quiet and orderly.” There is even a compliment for the gaoler, another Mr Simpson, who “judiciously” told his visitor that “Licences in gaols occasion much disorder” (283).

27One final example is worth citing, that of Nottingham County Gaol, which Howard visited five times between 1773 and 1776. The picture is rather more mixed than at Derby, notably because of the blot on the county’s copybook represented by the prison’s “deep dungeons, cut into the sandy rock, very damp: only one of them is used; it is twenty-one feet by thirteen, and seven feet high: the straw on barrack beds.” However, Howard goes out of his way to compliment the Nottinghamshire magistrates on other aspects of their county gaol, such as the recent addition of “a large and very commodious bath” and the construction of a two-room infirmary. He adds:

The Justices have allowed the Gaoler to supply the sick with better nourishment &c. to the amount of seven shillings a week. Gentleman so remarkably considerate and humane will, I hope, abolish the unwholesome Dungeon. (288)

28All of this may seem a rather insubstantial silver lining compared with the cloud of opprobrium now hanging over a number of the region’s town councils and county benches, but Howard seems to have realised intuitively that symbols, even insubstantial ones, could be important in such cases. The particular format chosen by Howard for his book – neither simple compendium of facts nor polemical tract – placed The State of the Prisons in a category all of its own at the time of its publication in the 1777. It is not simply, as Porter contends, that Howard produced “the big prison book” while “none of the other writers on prison reform did more than produce articles and bits and pieces in the periodical press” (Porter 26). Howard’s book plays by a different set of rules from the works of those other writers, and they were rules which offered the country’s aldermen and magistrates at least the possibility, individually or collectively, to save face by appearing to align themselves (however far-fetched that alignment might have been in reality) with the forces of reform and/or good management in their respective counties.


29There is thus a strong case for considering that John Howard genuinely believed that the sober presentation of “matter of fact without amplification” (Howard 6), a cautious and piecemeal approach to reform, and a refusal (with few exceptions) to name and shame those responsible, would make his recommendations more palatable to the consciences and wallets of the local aldermen and magistrates in whose administrative back yards most of these crumbling, noisome establishments were located (Cooper 85). Here was someone who, as one historian aptly puts it, “was possessed of a particular ability to record his observations in such a fashion that understatement had galvanic effects” (McConville 85). Thus, by sugaring the pill of generalised criticism with more specific praise directed at worthy individuals or groups, Howard was able to appeal to what he hoped were the better instincts of local officials in order (he hoped again) to maximise the chances of future reform, while at the same time offering encouragement for those embryonic penal improvements already underway in different regions (Eastwood 243-44).

  • 8 As might be expected, the disparagers have left few traces in the historical record, but some clues (...)
  • 9 I have argued elsewhere (Davie 79) that it remains a moot point whether Howard – or indeed anyone e (...)

30It was inevitably going to be a scatter-gun strategy, and Tessa West’s claim, cited earlier, that “no one criticised [Howard] for invention or exaggeration” does not stand up to close scrutiny.8 That being said, in the context of late-eighteenth century provincial politics, Howard’s strategy was probably as likely to chalk up successes as any other. Indeed, the way in which, as we have seen, The State of the Prisons offered readers a detailed empirical portrait of conditions in Britain’s prisons while at the same time skilfully apportioning both blame and praise for those conditions, reveals a much more nuanced strategy at work in Howard’s book than has generally been appreciated. Hardly a case of what the Webbs considered merely “curiously childlike simplicity of thought” and “persistency of will” (Webb & Webb 63). It is plausible, moreover, to suggest that this strategy played a key role in transforming its author from Porter’s voice in the choir into its star soloist. This is not to minimise the importance of the interlocking penal crisis caused by prison overcrowding and disease and the suspension of transportation to North America following the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775, but rather to say that in that context the approach adopted in The State of the Prisons ensured a particular resonance for what the book had to say. Indeed, after 1777, there were plenty eager to listen, not least within the British government, for whom John Howard would become a valued consultant for the next stage of its legislative plans, consulted by the country’s most eminent legal theorists and legislators. The result was the passage of the Penitentiary Act of 1779, a law which, as noted above, laid down the contours of a new penal regime along lines similar to those recommended by Howard in The State of the Prisons; with supervised, associated labour for convicts by day and separate confinement by night (Devereaux). The text of the law also expressed the Howardian hope that the new “penitentiary houses” “[…] might be the means under providence, not only of deterring others from the commission of like crimes, but also of reforming the individuals, and inuring them to habits of industry” (quoted in Beattie 575). That the 1779 act would ultimately remain a dead letter, and that Howard must shoulder some of the responsibility for that failure,9 does not take away from the fact, as historian Randall McGowen has argued (79), that The State of the Prisons succeeded in “mak[ing] the prison the centre of focus, shifting all other forms of punishment to the margins.” In other words, Howard’s book made the prison not only the problem, but also the solution, a shift in perception that would be of crucial significance, for better or worse, in the evolution of Britain’s criminal justice system in the decades to come.

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Primary Sources

Aikin, John. A View of the Character and Public Services of the late John Howard, Esq., L.L.D, F.R.S. London: J. Johnson, 1792.

Bedford and Luton Archives. W3309  John Howard to unnamed addressee, May 20, 1789.

Bentham, Jeremy. The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham. Ed Timothy L.S. Sprigge. Volume 2, 1777-1780. London: UCL Press, 2017.

Bodleian Library, Oxford. Howard Papers, Ms. Eng. misc. e.401: “1788-1789 Memorandums and Remarks” [Notebook].

British Library. Howard Papers, Add. Ms. 26055: “Correspondence and Papers Relating to the Monument of John Howard, 1786-1796”.

Brown, James Baldwin. Memoirs of the Public and Private Life of John Howard, the Philanthropist. 2nd ed. London: Thomas & George Underwood, 1823.

Field, John, ed. Correspondence of John Howard, the Philanthropist: Not Before Published. London: Longman Brown, Green & Longmans, 1855.

Hanway, Jonas. Solitude in Imprisonment. London: J. Bew, 1776.

Howard, John. The State of the Prisons in England and Wales: with Preliminary Observations, and an Account of some Foreign Prisons. Warrington: William Eyres, 1777.

Sentimental Magazine. “The State of the Prisons in England and Wales” [book review]. Sentimental Magazine (Aug. 1777): 177-79.

Taylor, Thomas. Memoirs of John Howard, Esq., F.R.S., the Christian Philanthropist. London: John Hatchard, 1836.

Secondary Sources

Baumgartner, Leona. John Howard (1726-1790) Hospital and Prison Reformer: A Bibliography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1939.

Beattie, J.M. Crime and the Courts in England 1660-1800. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986.

Burnage, Sarah. “Introduction: The British School of Architecture – A Case Study.” The British School of Sculpture, c.1760-1832. Ed. Jason Edwards & Sarah Burnage. London: Routledge, 2017. 21-33.

Cooper, Robert Alan. “Ideas and Their Execution: English Prison Reform.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 10.1 (1976): 73-93.

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Davie, Neil. The Penitentiary Ten: The Transformation of the English Prison, 1770-1850. Oxford: Bardwell, 2017.

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1 Howard was under no illusions as to his own shortcomings in this respect. He confided in a letter to a colleague in 1779 “the difficulty I have in expressing my ideas clearly” and “the pain, fatigue and labour that I have in writing for the press” (John Howard to George Whatley, 27 December 1779, repr. in Field 63).

2 As Howard continued his travels and collected more information, sometimes returning to a particular prison for a second, third or even fourth time, his readers would be provided with regular updates in the form of appendices and new, enlarged, editions. Thus between 1780 and 1792, three further editions (1780, 1784, 1792) and two appendices (1780, 1784) were published, as well as several collections of extracts, in order to accommodate this accumulating body of data (Baumgartner 17-28).

3 Only in 1785 in fact would Bedford magistrates vote their gaoler (also coincidentally called Howard) a salary of £60 a year (Stockdale 72, 79).

4 This description of the Howard credo was confirmed by the man himself in a 1789 letter, where he wrote how he “wish[ed] to draw [his] inferences from close observation” rather than from “the Theories of Persons”, and he admitted to “read[ing] little” by other authors on the subject of his researches (Bedford and Luton Archives W3309).

5 Again, the comparison with early ethnography springs to mind. Geertz’s discussion of Raymond Firth’s We, the Tikopia (1936) is particularly relevant in this respect (11-14).

6 This jurisdiction included the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland and Warwickshire, together with the cities of Coventry and Lincoln and the towns of Leicester and Nottingham.

7 Aikin recalled (66) that the “additional matter” added to The State of the Prisons on the eve of publication at Warrington, referred to above, was sometimes “interwoven with the text, but the greater part was necessarily thrown into notes, which, in some of his volumes, are numerous.”

8 As might be expected, the disparagers have left few traces in the historical record, but some clues remain (see Davie 70-73). Howard himself was aware that he was the object of “reflections that some make, as they think, to my disparagement” (Bodleian Library Ms. Eng. misc. e.401, f. 16a).

9 I have argued elsewhere (Davie 79) that it remains a moot point whether Howard – or indeed anyone else – could have transformed the philanthropic zeal of the 1770s into a penal reform movement. True, there was a temporary window of opportunity for the penitentiary created by the suspension of transportation in 1775, but the political will to create the extensive network of reformed prisons Howard called for in The State of the Prisons was simply not there, either in central or (for the moment at least) in local government.

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Electronic reference

Neil Davie, Feet of Marble or Feet of Clay? John Howard and the origins of prison reform in Britain, 1773-1790 XVII-XVIII [Online], 76 | 2019, Online since 31 December 2019, connection on 29 July 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Neil Davie

Neil Davie is Professor of British History at Université Lumière Lyon 2, France. He has published widely in the field of British history from the late 18th to early 20th centuries, principally on the history of penal policy and criminology, and has also written on the history of science and women’s history. He is the author of The Penitentiary Ten: The Transformation of the English Prison, 1770-1850 (Oxford: Bardwell, 2017); Tracing the Criminal: The Rise of Scientific Criminology in Britain, 1860–1918 (Oxford: Bardwell, 2005) and L’Evolution de la condition féminine en Grande-Bretagne à travers les textes juridiques fondamentaux de 1830 à 1975 (Lyon: ENS Editions, 2011).

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