One 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’.
Booking 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.