Prisons and Prisoners

Prison accommodation was totally inadequate, and prison officers, like the police, did not exist in anything approaching a modern form. The problem of where to detain criminals was virtually insoluble to the authorities, who, recognising the ineffectiveness of previous legislation, made two major attempts to solve it – in 1763, and between 1778 and 1786, when social unrest was increasing.

Prisons were overcrowded and hygiene was virtually non-existent. It was not until 1784 (23 & 24 Geo. III, c. 41) that parliament advocated separating the sexes, and then only if it was practical. Many prisoners died of gaol fever, a form of typhus, before they came to trial – this disease, to which the great prison reformer John Howard eventually fell a victim, was greatly feared and acted as a spur to prison reform. There were numerous reports of infection being spread at trials, and all who visited gaols ran severe risks.

Report after report speaks of the overcrowding, the unendurable stench and the prevalence of gaol fever. In 1729 the House of Commons was told that in Newgate prison, in a room 12 feet square and 8 feet high, there were frequently 14 people and occasionally 20. Most gaols were small. Howard, who visited Ireland in 1775, 1779 and in 1782, when he gave evidence to the House of Commons committee on prisons, found that Kinsale gaol had three rooms, Tralee four, while Londonderry, shared by the city and county, had only six rooms.

Moreover, the gaol was often the lower floor of a multi-purpose building; for instance, at Lifford it was under the County Hall and at Antrim and Armagh under the Assembly Rooms. At Castlebar Howard found that 42 prisoners had been confined in a room 17 feet by 22 feet.

The largest prison in Dublin was Newgate. In 1767 it had accommodation for 80, but the average number of inmates was 170. There was also the Bridewell, where lunatics and minor offenders were confined, and five Marshalseas or debtors’ prisons including the ‘black dog’, where criminals as well as debtors were imprisoned. In 1759 there were reputed to be 705 debtors in gaol throughout Ireland, including 40 women.

The Inspector General of prisons reported in 1796 that 716 felons and 575 debtors were confined in Irish gaols. The sums for which they were confined could be large or very small – under £1. Being in gaol was a further expense as it involved paying fees to the gaoler, and debtors were not released until they had cleared the further debts incurred in prison.

The system was wide open to abuse and as early as 1698, 10 Will. III, c. 9, parliament attempted to control extortion by issuing tables of fees that were to be strictly observed. In addition, a prisoner ‘shall have free liberty to bring in, or cause to be brought in, his own bed, meat and drink and clothing at seasonable hours without hindrance from the Marshal’.

Eighteenth-century gaols, like eighteenth-century society, were hierarchical, and payment could be made by one’s family or in some other way for superior accommodation. From time to time parliament attempted by legislation to remove or regularise abuses or anomalies in the system, but there was no effective means of enforcing these laws. The system was totally self-defeating, and from time to time the immediate problem of overcrowding was solved by releasing debtors under indemnity acts.

Society was not impervious to the problem, and associations were founded specifically for the relief of debtors, who also benefited from the proceeds of charitable entertainments. For instance, the Charitable Society, founded in 1718, gave ‘elegant concerts’ to raise funds for this purpose. Individuals tried to relieve or ameliorate prison conditions; for instance, the Butler family sent coal to prisoners in Kilkenny gaol and in 1747 Anne, Viscountess Midleton, bequeathed £200 to a society for the assistance of discharged prisoners. In 1791, the eccentric Earl-Bishop gave 100 guineas to free 70 debtors in Omagh gaol, Co. Tyrone.

In 1770 a decision was made to rebuild both the city Marshalsea and Newgate. Nevertheless, although it was by far the biggest gaol in Ireland, Newgate was soon overcrowded.

In 1784 the Lord Chancellor, Lord Lifford, complained that it was almost impossible to visit Newgate without being robbed, and that the same was true for all the gaols in the kingdom.

In 1765 there were 42 gaols of various types, and by the 1770s every county in Ireland possessed some sort of penitentiary. During the following decade the building of Newgate, combined with the reports of John Howard on his tour of Irish prisons in 1778, encouraged a wave of gaol building and improvement. An Inspector General, Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick (see below), was appointed and in 1796 he reported on 51 prisons.207

The condition of the gaols was mirrored in the calibre of the gaolers, who were corrupt and depraved to such a degree that they appear to have differed little from some of their charges. Indeed, in some prisons they were ‘trusties’ or criminals elevated to the role of gaolers. The office of gaoler was one of profit because of the legitimate, and more often illegitimate, fees that he could demand from the prisoners. In 1726 parliament passed an act forbidding, under a penalty of £500, anyone to ‘buy, sell, let or take to farm the office of gaoler’. Previously the office had been openly farmed to the highest bidder.

However, three years later the House of Commons discovered that Ashenhurst Isaack, Keeper of Dublin’s Newgate Prison, had given £245 to the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs, who had the disposal of the gaol; his successor, John Hawkins, had done likewise with an additional £100 to the Mayor and Sheriffs for their support. Hawkins had not made a bad bargain, as it transpired that he was getting £1,163 from room rents, fees and perquisites, in addition to other extortions ‘not to be computed or valued’. Isaack, his predecessor, had allowed several notorious robbers to escape.

During the first half of the eighteenth century the gaoler was expected to keep the prison in repair.209 Confronted with this evidence, and probably with an increase in crime, as 1729 was a year of scarcity, parliament again sought legislative remedies in a flurry of statutes: 3 Geo. II, c. 4, 5, 9, 15, 20, all attempted to improve the administration of justice. But the defects in the prison system in general, and in the conduct of gaolers in particular, were extant in 1778, when Howard reported that ‘some of the under-sheriffs in Ireland are guilty of a great abuse in taking 20 or 30 guineas off the gaolers for their appointments.’

There were some exceptions to this custodial criminality; for example, Howard praised the gaoler at Cork, and the House of Commons recorded the exemplary behaviour of the gaoler in the Marshalsea. As institutions, eighteenth-century prisons offered the most vivid picture of concentrated human misery, degradation and squalor.

Again and again parliament sent for reports, considered them and sought remedies for a situation that was beyond either its experience or its resources. In the 1770s and 1780s prison reform had the support of such formidable parliamentary figures as Hussey-Burgh (1059) and the active interest of at least three Chief Secretaries – Sir John Blaquiere (0162) (1772–6), who married in Ireland and made his subsequent career there; William Eden (0681) (1780–2), whose interest in prison reform was well known before he arrived; and Thomas Orde (1594) (1784–7) – as well as the sustained attention of Peter Holmes (1032), MP for Banagher.

In many cases their ideas were in advance of those in Great Britain, but, as Howard clearly saw, their police legislation was ‘as defective in point of execution as it is commendable in theory’. Perhaps the most important result of their endeavours was the appointment of Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick, a Dublin physician, as Inspector General of Prisons with a brief to keep the problem before the House through regular reports on the condition of prisons throughout the kingdom. The establishment of systematic inspection by competent and devoted officials ultimately provided the link between the parliamentary statute and its effective implementation.