Richard W. Ireland
I write this as the COVID-19 pandemic still dominates everyday life and where in Wales, from which I write, restrictions on movement and association are still much stricter than in other parts of the UK. The changes that lockdown has made have often been remarked upon in terms of sensory experience; roads are quieter, birdsong more noticeable, air purer etc. The observation that sensory experience is both (inter alia) historically and geographically variable is banal, and will come as no surprise to those interested in this site. But it is the experience of sudden change which I want to pursue here and I will do that in relation to the impact of imprisonment in the nineteenth century. The examples which I will cite here come, unless I indicate otherwise, from my researches into the daily workings of a particular County Gaol, that of Carmarthen in South-West Wales, between c.1840 and c.1877, but many will find echoes down the corridors of other Victorian prisons.
For those who may be unacquainted with the momentous changes in the criminal justice system in the nineteenth century a few words of introduction may help. In the hundred years between Howard’s State of the Prisons in 1777 and the nationalisation of the prison system in 1877 massive changes took place within state punishment. The punishments of the stocks, pillory and transportation had been abolished and whipping and capital punishment had both been much restricted in their use and brought inside the walls of the prison. Imprisonment had become the focus of the response to crime. Elements of the carceral experience which we now consider axiomatic, such as the cell and the uniform, become generally employed only at this time. The regime to be used in prison, and the aims to be pursued, became a matter of vigorous debate and experimentation.in the period covered by this piece. The “Separate System”, which had seen its highpoint in the opening of Pentonville in 1842, promoted religious reform through isolation of prisoners in solitary confinement, while the rival “Silent System” allowed association, but forbad any talking between inmates. Both, it can be seen, were defined by limitations of sensory experience. We will have cause to consider both in due course, but I will use consideration of different senses as the framework of my discussion, although it will be clear that there is considerable and unavoidable overlap at times.
I want to begin here, not with the walls and the cell, but with the transformation of the prisoner within the Victorian gaol. Such immediate marks of individuality as might be conveyed by the visual indicators of clothing and hair were removed, this latter only in the case of male prisoners. The haircut was a source of some controversy, particularly as the end of a sentence approached, for it could serve as a badge of criminality even after discharge. In Carmarthen in 1846-7 there were significant disputes, including the invocation by the prisoners of the authority of the Home Secretary, led by inmates James Hunt and James Hargrave and which centred on the haircut. Institutions where the separate system was rigidly enforced even the face itself was concealed: males wore “Pentonville peaks”, caps the peaks of which were pulled over the face, leaving only holes for vision. Even so, if prisoners met outside the cell whilst being moved one had to turn to the wall as another passed. Women prisoners wore a thick black veil, through which their features were indistinguishable. What was visible under such a regime was not a person, but a symbol of controlled criminality.
Prisoners who were in any way visually impaired could provide particular problems for the prison routine. John Wilson, a tea dealer “blind in both eyes” was sentenced to twelve months with hard labour in 1846 was unable to be employed within the prison and his conduct during his sentence was described as “very bad”. Twenty-five years earlier a 74-year-old debtor, James Davies, whose eyesight was so bad that he collided with the prison walls, won a bet that he could run 420 yards before another debtor could eat two muffins. Others could be subjected to abuse, David Jones was punished by Governor Westlake in 1845, whose spelling is here typically erratic, “for neglecting to work on the wheel in is turn and calling George Gilbert a blind eye has he had lost a eye”.
There was another visual problem, of immense theoretical importance, inherent in the penological transition of the nineteenth century. If prison was intended to deter (an aim which ebbed and flowed reciprocally with reformation during the century) then how could suffering be conveyed to those outside the walls? The crowds who witnessed the pains and shame of physical punishment, the public whippings and executions, had the moral drama played out in full sight. Prison had to employ a different strategy, the architecture of the building supplanting the body of the criminal as the site, and the sight, of deterrence. Architecture tended towards the massy and powerful, prisons often in highly visible positions within towns and cities. Carmarthen’s gaol, on the site of the old castle, dominated the townscape. It was built by the celebrated John Nash, the carved chains on the gatehouse recalling Newgate. It also had, at one point, a unique (as far as I know) yet symbolically perfect substitute for the suffering body hidden within. When the treadwheel was in operation a painted, life-size pewter model of a prisoner revolved on a pole above the walls. It may have been this, or perhaps the sails and regulators which were visible indicators of the wheel in other prisons, which was pointed out to the “thimble gentry” arrested at a fair in the town in 1833.
One of the most important rituals of the experienced criminal starting a sentence in some cellular Victorian prisons was entirely tactile. He or she would run their fingers along the ledge beneath the ventilator over the door of the cell. I do the same whenever I enter a preserved gaol now. They were feeling for a nail which might have been left there by the previous occupant. Nails could be a great help in picking the daily allocation of oakum, one of the tasks assigned as hard labour. Oakum was old ships’ rope which had to be pulled apart into its constituent fibres; a dirty and unpleasant task. That it could damage the fingers to the extent of hindering completion of the task seems evident from the records. It need hardly be added that the susceptibility to injury would to an extent depend on the variable sensitivity of the hands into which the uniform lump of rope was delivered: the miner and the clerk would not necessarily experience the punishment in the same way. Other hard labour tasks could also result in painful injury. One of the many prisoners’ names for the treadwheel was the “shinscraper”, the desire to use bodyweight as well as muscle power to drive the revolving treads prompting, I think, a desire to move further forward on the step, risking contact with the one above as it descended.
If such tactile encounters were unwelcome, one benefit of incarceration may have been that prisoners may have scratched themselves rather less than they had been used to. A large number of those admitted to Carmarthen Gaol (in one quarterly report from 1870 more than one third of them) were suffering from scabies, which meant that they would begin their remand or sentence by entering a liminal space with an undeniably sensory title: the “Itch Ward”.
I have read many accounts of the transition from the open “wards” of the pre-reform prison to the cellular Victorian version, made compulsory after 1865, which stress the intention of preventing “contamination” both moral and physical between prisoners, and the disruption of the inmate subculture, but few which actually consider how strange it would have seemed to those subjected to it. To sleep in a room without anyone else in it, even in the bed itself, would have been unprecedented for many adult offenders, and not only those with spouses and children, but also to those who slept in overcrowded lodging houses, servants’ quarters or miners’ barracks. It is unclear whether that nocturnal solitude, without the warmth and opportunity for conversation which a shared bed brought, would have been welcomed, but the supposition is certainly not unreasonable. In the year 1856-7 there were five beds for women prisoners in Carmarthen gaol and at one point they were occupied by no fewer than thirteen adults and two children at the same time. When the womens’ prison was rebuilt thereafter to allow greater segregation it was still condemned by the Prison Inspector, the separationist J.G. Perry as not entirely excluding association.
As has been indicated earlier, the prison regime of the nineteenth century was predicated on silence, whether it depended on solitary confinement or association. Yet this was easier to propose than to enforce, particularly in local gaols which had not been built to a particular pattern, as had, for example, Pentonville. In that “penitentiary” the Separate System was enforced to such an extent that prison officers wore felt slippers to muffle the sound of their perambulations. But the construction of individual cells in older local gaols, financed by ratepayers, was expensive in terms of construction, whilst the alternative Silent System needed an increase in staff to be effectively enforced. In fact the 1835 Select Committee heard that within Wales only Cardiganshire claimed to enforce silence, a prisoner on the Discovery hulk stating that the cursing swearing and obscene stories he had been exposed to in Carmarthen were “enough to ruin any young man”. Even after the system had been officially improved within the gaol the Governor admitted, in an unguarded comment in his Journal, that it could not be fully enforced.
To the reasons for such failure to control communication we will return shortly. Suffice it to say that even in prisons where it was strictly enforced the ban on communication might simply promote a change of sensory register: the sign language used within the silent system (tapping the nose for tobacco, hence “snout” in prison slang”), or the banging on pipes connecting separate cells. I want to pause here though to consider the language which was used within prisons when the opportunity did arise. The county which Carmarthen Gaol served was a predominantly Welsh speaking one, and our best estimate suggests that around one third of the population spoke no English, whilst the proficiency of others in English may have been limited. Yet the official language of the prison was English as was the language of the courtroom, in which offenders were tried, even on capital charges, in a language they did not understand. But it is not this question of understanding that I want to address here, but simply the sound of the language of official penality, quite different from that to which the Welsh speakers (and indeed Irish speakers who were also confined there) were accustomed. We have seen that visual signs of the transition to an alien environment (the uniform, the haircut) marked the significant fracture from previous experience. Here was an aural one.
As Katy Roscoe’s blog at this site has admirably demonstrated, despite the theoretical insistence on, and optimistic reporting of, the regime of silence, such a rule could not, as we have mentioned earlier, be fully enforced. Nor was such noise as there was always contained within the walls. One Sunday in August 1846 Mary Ann Awberry, a frequent prisoner who often showed contempt for the rule of silence, was confined to the punishment cell where she continued to sing loud enough to be heard in the two main streets around the gaol.
I want to pause here however to consider an element of Victorian imprisonment which inevitably compromised the supposed requirement of silence, namely the presence of babies and toddlers in the prison. This was not by any means an isolated occurrence. Women gave birth in prison or brought in young children who would otherwise have nowhere to go, and cries and talk would have been unavoidable. In Beaumaris Gaol (Ynys Môn/Anglesey) an attempt to distance mothers from children in separate rooms involved an extension of the tactile, as a rope passed through a hole in the workroom ceiling to rock the cradle positioned in the room above.
Much has been written, and more should be, on the Victorian prison diet, but the discussion has largely been confined to the nature and the adequacy of the meals provided, rather than their taste. Yet this is not quite as inaccessible to the modern commentator: I have myself on many occasions made, eaten and served to others (sometimes large numbers in lectures) food prepared in accordance with approved prison dietaries. Such experiments can actually reveal more than might be expected. Asked to make a short film on prison food a while ago for Archives Awareness Week (available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rs2uexvfKc8 ) I learned something interesting about that staple of prison food, gruel. I had to drive for a couple of hours from my home to Ruthin Gaol for an early start to filming, so made the gruel the night before. What was usually a warm thin liquid porridge had congealed when cold into a viscous lump, as it might have done in a large cold prison. Of course I do not know exactly what it would have tasted like to a Victorian prisoner, but I suspect that it would, like so many aspects of life which we have considered above, have been at the very least very alien. Whilst local prisons could, whilst under local control, permit local taste to be catered for (Ruthin at one time served “lobscouse”) other ingredients such as “Indian meal” (i.e. maize) were not, as far as I know, to be found regularly in the kitchens of West Wales.
We know that there were complaints from prisoners, not only about the quantity of food but also its quality. Indeed, as one of their few recognised entitlements food became a frequent battle between staff and inmates. Soup and bread were often tasted, if complained of, by officers of the gaol, particularly the surgeon or by a magistrate, who would inevitably, in Carmarthen at any rate, rule against the prisoner. It was perhaps disingenuous of a local JP to declare in a case from 1849 that the bread (made with “seconds” flour and deliberately not served fresh to prevent prisoners pulping it into dough to claim it was uncooked and thereby gain more) was “nearly as good as that eaten in his own family”.
Such local issues pale into insignificance when set aside the experience of some elsewhere, who would eat such things as candle ends and used poultices to assuage their hunger. Prison candles were given a “highly offensive smell” to prevent them being eaten. An account of the stomach-turning material consumed by some inmates may be found in Philip Priestley’s excellent Victorian Prison Lives. The question of their taste would seem to have been as irrelevant to the desperate prisoner as they are unthinkable to the researcher.
After a recent minor relaxation of lockdown regulations, a friend was able to travel from her home in a small seaside town to the nearby uplands. “I’ve missed the difference in the air inland” she said, before pausing, “I think I mean the smell of sheep piss!”. It is, indeed, the unmistakeable aroma of parts of the countryside, particularly in summer. I mention this to make a point which is insufficiently appreciated by academics, most of whom live and work in towns or cities. Until 1851, according to figures recorded in the census, more people in Britain lived in rural than in urban environments, and many areas such as in Wales remained largely rural thereafter. Yet prisons, like universities, are and were largely to be found in towns. The ambient smell of the urban is not the same as that of the rural: not only the animals but the differences such as plant life or the smell of wood fires rather than coal ones. I am not being romantic here: it is simply true. (The same point could of course have been made in relation to ambient sound, and not simply along the axis of volume, for a visiting city friend confessed that he had been unable to sleep due to the impressive levels of sound produced by a field full of ewes with lambs at foot.) The farm worker from hill country, moved to prison in even a small town like Carmarthen, which was a busy port at the time, would have smelled different things from outside the walls. Inside the smell of people confined and labouring hard would have been notable too. True, things were not as bad as when Howard had toured the unreformed gaols with his vinegared handkerchief to his nose. The miasma theory of disease had led to a concentration on the ventilation of new or rebuilt prisons which was, on occasion, elevated to remarkable levels. The most visible part of Ruthin gaol is a tower, built not as part of the chapel or for observation but to draw air through the building’s ventilation system. Control of contamination had been raised to the status of a public landmark.
Sense as privilege
I want to say a few words about prison punishment, in which deprivation of sensory experience featured strongly, as if it were a luxury to be forfeited for bad behaviour. Meals could be withdrawn and use made of “refractory”, “solitary”, “underground” or “dark” cells (these are not always synonyms in Carmarthen, which could have more than one differently-described punishment room at the same time; the exact relationship still eludes me). In 1851 the two “dark cells” were described by the Inspector as “dangerous to health, perhaps even to life”. Punishment cells were unheated and, I suspect unventilated. Certainly, the sensations experienced by prisoners might not be uniform. In that particular gaol a prisoner was “forgiven” by the Governor after a night in the cell in 1846, the weather being “so cold and freezing”, whilst later in the same year he complained that prisoners preferred to be sent to the refractory cell rather than to labour during a particularly hot spell.
I have tried here to give a glimpse (or echo or feel or taste or sniff: see how easily the sensory permeates even the written document?) of life in the Victorian prison. I have concentrated on the institutions within Wales not only because I know them best but also because the experience of the rural offender in general, and the Welsh one in particular, has been so frequently overlooked. Nonetheless much of what has been considered here is applicable, mutandis mutatis, to other environments. I hope that I have demonstrated that for the Victorian prisoner, and in particular the prison novice, what was lost was not simply liberty, but familiarity. That familiarity is built up by sensory experience and its loss is not an insignificant one.