Harty Henry

Harty Henry came before the Surrey magistrates in August 1823 charged with stealing a hat and two umbrellas from the Nag’s head in Southwark.  A clerk, Robert Sharp, gave evidence:

ship-placeholderI was going into my master’s counting house.  I met the prisoner Harty Henry coming out in company with another man at which time the prisoner had the box now produced containing a hat belonging to William Nash the younger, and the two umbrellas also now produced one of which is the property of William Nash the elder and the other umbrella is the property of myself.   The hat is the value of twenty shillings and the umbrellas are of the value of two shillings each.  I sent for an officer and gave him charge of the prisoner and the property.  Another man ran away at the time.

Henry was sentenced to twelve months hard labour at the house of correction at Brixton.

Just under two years later the convict ship The Medina arrived in Van Diemen’s Land.  Among the 180 passengers was the 24 year old Henry.  He evidently had a penchant for umbrellas and had scaled up his operation, having been caught stealing 24 of them from the London wagon he was employed as a ‘carrier’ on.  He’d been sentenced at the Old Bailey to seven years transportation.

He never returned to England.  In 1831 he married Mary Burkinshaw and together they had three children.  He died at his home in Hobart in 1867 aged 75.

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Brixton For Sale

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 22.05.39In 1852, overcrowded and delapidated, Brixton prison was put up for sale.  It would be replaced as the Surrey house of correction by a new prison in Wandsworth.

The buildings were sold late in the summer.  But it was to have a stay of execution.  The end of transportation meant there was suddenly a surfeit of convicts.

The government made a compulsory purchase of the site.  In 1853 Brixton reopened as the first national prison for women.

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The Surgeon

William Gardner had been the surgeon at Brixton from its beginning.

His duties required him to visit the prison every day, see every prisoner at least twice a week, visit all sick prisoners in the infirmary every day and to examine each new prisoner.

Excerpt from the Prison Rules

In one of his first reports in 1822, with the prison holding around 140 people, he listed ten people in his care, among them the pitiable Frances Bell, who had come into the prison with a diseased rectum.

But by 1836 the prison population had doubled and in his report of October that year he detailed some 28 people in the infirmary.

Accompanying his report was a letter to the Surrey magistrates, which noted that the increase in his workload had not been paralleled by an increase in his salary.

At the start of his tenure, he wrote, those coming into Brixton had generally had a ‘robustness of constitution’, but the knowledge of the care that the prison provided meant that more and more he was seeing those ‘in the most diseased and broken down state of constitution . . . in the extremity of destitution and distress’.

It meant, he said, that ‘instead of a place of punishment, this establishment is to those persons an asylum or hospital, affording a cure to their diseases and a relief to their wants.’

One of his principle duties was examining those who claimed to be unfit to labour on Brixton’s notorious treadwheels, ‘many of whom, when foiled in their attempts to deceive, are extremely troublesome and abusive, and I have been threatened with personal violence from many for reporting them fit for Labour.’

And he argued it was now common for him to act not so much as a doctor, but a midwife, such were the numbers of women on the verge of labour coming through the prison gates, which detained him ‘nights and days’.

He also lamented that the doctors in the other London prisons had higher salaries, despite having far fewer duties.

A transcription of Gardner’s letter, held in the Surrey History Centre, is below.

At the early period of the establishment of the Brixton House of Correction the Diseases that came under the care of the Surgeon were chiefly such as occur from the common existing causes and casualties in subjects possessing an ordinary state of health and robustness of constitution, but when the nature of the prison discipline and accommodation became known and appreciated by those who became its inmate, a class of Prisoners in the most diseased and broken down state of constitution, and in the extremity of destitution and distress have gained admittance into this Establishment exclusively for the purpose of obtaining medical relief and attendance and whose term of Imprisonment usually expires by the time they have recovered, so that, instead of a place of Punishment, this Establishment is to those persons an Asylum or Hospital, affording a Cure for their Diseases and a relief to their wants.

I have repeatedly shown to the visiting Magistrates that these cases are of a much more onerous and arduous nature than such as casually occur in healthy subjects, that they require much greater attendance, and oftentimes visiting twin in the same day, and involve a greater degree of responsibility; for independently of the calls of humanity, in case of the death of any of these Individuals, which not infrequently happens, a Coroner’s Inquest is summoned; where, if the slightest neglect is proved, the medical attendant becomes exposed to severe and public censure.  It often happens too that at the expiration of the term of confinement, these Individuals are in such a debilitated and diseased state, that they are quite incapable of being removed, and sometimes they die within the walls of the Prison long after the Expiration of their sentence, and I should observe that, on the occasion of the Coroner’s Inquest, the Surgeon is always obliged to attend where he is often detain some hours.

At the first Establishment of the Brixton House of Correction Midwifery was, I believe, never contemplated; but for several years past I have had annually many cases of this description in the Prison, which have detained me nights and days.

The Surgeon is now called upon to attend likewise and report on the Health of the Officers of the Prison male and female and occasionally has visited them at some distance from hence.  A great many Infants and Children are also confided to the case of the Surgeon, may of whom have been attacked with acute infantile disorders.

In addition to my attendance upon the sick, a large portion of my time is usually occupied every day in examining upwards of twenty prisoners who simulate disease in order to avoid the labour of the wheel, and these cases frequently require more investigation that those of real Disease – Indeed I have always felt this the most mortifying and painful part of my Duties, as it brings me daily into collision with some of the most determined and successful Impostors, many of whom, when foiled in their attempts to deceive, are extremely troublesome and abusive, and I have been threatened with personal violence from many for reporting them fit for Labour.

I beg leave also to submit to your Consideration another source from  which a great deal of  heavy responsibility devolves upon me and which constantly requires vigilant and discriminating attention.  This arrives out of our system of Prison Discipline, and more particularly the Dietary which necessarily reduces the strength and weight of every male Prisoner.  This may be carried to a certain extent, but no farther, without reducing the constitution of the Prisoners to a critical state, whereby he becomes the subject of Disease; and in which case, if attacked by any of the common conditions his life is often in peril, and his complaints more difficult to cure than those of an ordinary Individual.  Indeed if there are some constitutions that will not bear the effect of the Prison discipline, and, as connected with such persons if its strictness were not abandoned, the consequences would be fatal.  These inmates are not speculative, they are facto derived from experience, and the result of observations I have made in the cause of my professional attendance at the Prison.

The number of Prisoners has increased I believe of late years considerably.

Lastly I believe that on enquiry, it will be found that at all the Tread Mill Prisons about the Metropolis viz the Millbank Penitentiary, Tothill Fields and Cold Bath Fields, the Surgeons Salary is much greater comparatively than at Brixton, with no Duties of a more arduous nature than mine within their several Prison, on the contrary in many instances they are less so, and in being exempt from attendance at the Quarter Sessions four times in the year they are saved from what is a necessary cause of great expense and anxiety to me, and any allowance for travelling expenses has for some years been discontinued.

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A House in the Country

400One of the magistrates at the court in Wandsworth, George Clive, observed a worrying trend in the cases brought before him during the mid-1840s.  Numerous people, it seemed, were committing offences in the Surrey workhouses with the express intent of being sent to the house of correction at Brixton.  There was, Mr Clive noted, either ‘something very attractive at the prison or mismanagement somewhere.’

The workhouses had been reformed a decade earlier as part of the overhaul of the poor laws.  Until then, support for the destitute had consisted of handouts from the local parish.  The rapidly growing population now made such a system unsustainable.

The new laws prohibited this so-called ‘out-relief’.  Support would only be given to those willing to enter the workhouse.  It was a place that would be managed in such a way only the truly indigent would want to stay there.

It was alleged that at the workhouse in Andover in the mid-1840s, the half-starved inmates gnawed at the rotting bones they had been given to crush as a work task.  It was an extreme case, but for many the workhouse routine of hard work, strict discipline and the most basic of diets made it a place worse than a prison.

Indeed Brixton, with its menu of soup, meat and cocoa offered a blessed respite to the half-starved vagrants. There, Mr Clive observed, the ‘diet was high, and the work comparatively easy’.

The_workhouse_2_smBooking a short stay in the Surrey house of correction was straightforward.  All anyone had to do was commit some minor offence in the workhouse itself and the sentencing guidelines meant Mr Clive and his fellow magistrates would be obliged to send them there.

Typically this involved vandalism – breaking windows was common.  Many destroyed their clothes, ripping them from their bodies to leave themselves standing naked.  Others simply refused to work.  All would be careful not to commit a crime that could lead to a more serious punishment such as transportation.

People were candid about their motive.  Five boys, whose ages varied from 12 to 16, appeared in court in September 1846 charged with breaking windows in the Wandsworth workhouse.  The Morning Post noted that ‘these casual paupers one and all openly admit prison to be a luxury to them, and they all speak in high terms of the very excellent food given to them in the Brixton House of Correction.’

A vagrant in a separate case observed that a stint in Brixton was better than the magistrate giving him a 5 shilling note, while a group of ‘seven able bodied and hearty-looking young fellows’ sentenced for 14 days for rioting in the workhouse ‘thanked the magistrate and said that they wanted to visit their country house.’  Two women, given 21 days for smashing windows in the Southwark workhouse urged the justice for more with a plea of: “Give us a month, your worship, and good luck to you.”

A.B. had been a page boy and waiter ‘until drunkenness and loss of character obliged him to take a wandering life.’  Like many others, he had committed offences in the workhouse with the express purpose of being admitted to Brixton:

I think if the dietary were a little better in some of the country unions there would not be so many come up as there are.  They well know that the prison allowance is so superior to the allowance they get in these unions, that they will do anything, and tear their clothes in pieces, to be sent to the prison.

Not all prisons offered the ‘high diet’ of Brixton.  The food at the much smaller house of correction at Kingston had a notorious reputation and – when there was capacity – Mr Clive would take some delight in committing people there such as ten vagrants who came before the court in December 1846:

It was amusing to see the consternation depicted on their countenances when they found that they were not going to their favourite retreat, the Brixton House of Correction, where there is high fare and little work.

Clive became increasingly frustrated at the numbers of people appearing before him and wrote a letter to the secretary of state lamenting the matter.  By the end of 1846 some 80 people were being sentenced for disorderly conduct in the workhouse from the Wandsworth court alone.  During 1846, 467 people were sent to Brixton for such offences with the majority coming in the latter part of the year.

The solution was, of course, simple.  In 1847 the diet of Brixton was substituted for that of Kingston.  The number of related committals decreased to just 57.  By 1849 only 10 vagrants were committed for acts of insubordination out of nearly 4000 admissions.

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Bad Children, Bad Parents

poorladChildren are expensive; in the early Victorian period parents would go to extreme measures to get them off their hands.

In May 1836 John Mitchell brought his 14 year old stepson, Frederick Payne, before the Surrey magistrates, alleging the boy had stolen three pairs of his shoes.

Though the evidence against him was enough to send him to Brixton for two weeks, the chairman of the magistrates, Robert Hedger, questioned Mitchell’s motives in bringing the prosecution:

“How long have you been married to his mother?” asked Hedger.
“18 months,” replied Mitchell.
“I am told he is a very intelligent boy; is it so?”
“Yes he is, and his mother and I wish to get him off to sea.”
“You have both adopted a pretty expedient of getting him off to sea by prosecuting him for felony: you wish to get him a free passage by sending him to Botany Bay, I suppose.”
“He has some bad companions, and he has pilfered things from us.”

It was not unusual for parents to testify against their children in the hope of having them jailed or transported.  The mother of William Revels, a ‘genteel-looking youth’, told the court at Union Hall in January 1840 that her son had ‘evinced the most evil propensities almost since his very childhood.’  Revels had been charged with ‘being concealed in a lady’s bedroom for an unlawful purpose’, but claimed he was only seeking refuge from the harsh conduct of his stepfather.  He was sent to Brixton for a month.

In the same year a boy by the name of George Phillips was charged with stealing a pistol, and attempting to discharge it at a gentleman driving in a gig on the Clapham Road.

The prisoner’s father said that the boy was incorrigible, and that every means had been tried to break him of his vicious ways.  He had endeavoured to admit the boy into the Philanthropic Asylum.  The owner of the pistol said he could get a ship for the boy and get him off to sea, which the father readily agreed to.  He was committed to Brixton for fourteen days, after which a ship was provided for his departure.

Some though appeared to deserve their parents’ disapproval.  William Rowney, a boy between thirteen and fourteen had already been sent to Brixton three times, and once publicly and twice privately whipped for theft.  The magistrate was disposed to send him to Brixton again, but the boy’s father told the court that neither prison or the floggings had any effect on him.  ‘The boy himself, although seeing his father and mother in a state of affliction on his account, ridiculed their pity, and every now and then thrust out his tongue at them.’  The magistrate sent him for trial, from where he would likely be shipped to Australia.

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The Exercise Yard

yardThe journalist Henry Mayhew visited Brixton in the 1850s, when the prison was reserved for convict women.  He wrote this about the exercise (then known as ‘airing’) yards:

The airing yards at this prison have little of the bare gravel school play-ground character, so common with those at the other jails, for here there are grass-plots and flower-beds, so that, were it not for the series of mad-house-like windows piercing the prison walls, a walk in the exercising grounds of Brixton would be pleasant and unprison-like enough.

The prisoners exercise principally for one hour – from eight till nine; the laundry-women, however, whose work is laborious, walk for only half the usual time.

It is a somewhat curious and interesting sight to see near upon two hundred female convicts pacing in couples round and round the Brixton exercising yards, and chattering as they go like a large school, so that the yard positively rings as if it were a market-place with the gabbling of so many tongues; indeed, the sight of the convicts, filing along in couples, reminds one of the charity children parading through the streets, for the prisoners are dressed in the same plain straw bonnets, and not only have a cleanly and neat look, but are equally remarkable for the tidiness of their shoes and stockings.

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The Execution Shed

In 1783 the gallows at Tyburn were moved to Newgate – the prison which had loomed over London for six centuries.  Over a thousand executions took place both inside and outside its walls until it closed in 1902.

The Exeuction Shed at Brixton

From The Tatler

Following Newgate’s closure some newspapers reported arrangements being made at Brixton to accommodate London’s executions.  The newly-founded Tatler magazine published a picture of this ‘execution shed’ being built.

I can find no evidence of an execution ever having taken place at Brixton, which in 1902 had begun a new role as London’s remand prison.  Stories of the time report people being transported from the prison to Wandsworth to be hanged.

A former officer has suggested the building was used to store execution equipment, and that there was a pit which could have been used for a hanging.  It’s now used as a gym for the prisoners, and there’s no sign of a pit – or come to that a gallows.


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