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History of Wakefield Prison

Wakefield Prison History

"Wakefield has long had a famous name in prison history..."
"The English Prison & Borstal systems" by Sir Lionel Fox.

"Prison is a place to keep people locked up. It can never be more" said an American penologist. Nevertheless a glance at "The Annals of Wakefield House of Correction: For Three Hundred Years" by J. Horsfall Turner is sufficient to show that Wakefield Prison has always been something more than that. Even the Old House of Correction was designed not only to keep people locked up but also to ensure that they were confined in conditions of maximum discomfort.

In 1576, the eighteenth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Justices of the Peace were, by an Act of Parliament, required to provide Houses of Correction in the districts within their jurisdiction. The purpose of these institutions was to provide work for the unemployed poor and also to ensure that able bodied vagrants, harlots, idle apprentices, etc. 'Might be corrected in their habits by laborious discipline'. These institutions were to be under the direct control of the Justices who were responsible for finding work for the inmates. Wakefield Prison was originally the West Riding House of Correction and thus derives its origins from the Elizabethan Poor Law legislation.

Houses of Correction were intended to embody the ideas both of reform and deterrence but, as the Justices were concerned to protect the rates by frightening the vagrants out of their district rather than by correcting them in their habits, it can be assumed that the reformation of the offender cane to be regarded as a very minor consideration.

The early history of the Wakefield House of Correction is very obscure, as no continuous records were preserved until the beginning of the 19th century. The original House of Correction was a small building on ground now occupied by part of 'F' wing but no stone of the original structure remains. As it can be stated definitely that as late as 1595 the West Riding Justices had taken no steps to carry out their obligation under the Act of 1576 it seems that this original House of Correction was not built until 1597. The first gaoler or governor was named appropriately enough "Maister Key". This original institution was only on a small scale and held very few permanent prisoners.

The Court Records of the West Riding Quarter Sessions are the main source of information on the History of Wakefield Prison during the 17th and 18th centuries. They present a picture of a reasonably conscientious magistracy, by the standards of the times, carrying out their routine duties of inspection; authorising periodical repairs end additions to the prison buildings; exercising reasonable care in their choice of fit persons for the office of gaoler or governor, but concerning themselves little with the physical, mental or moral welfare of the prisoners. The 17th and 18th centuries provide an inglorious chapter in the history of English prisons but the West Riding Prison at Wakefield, overcrowded and insanitary as it undoubtedly was, probably compared favourably with most of the County Gaols at this time.

The great reformer, John Howard, visited the Prison in 1774 and drew the attention of the Justices to certain shortcomings. He wrote; "WEST RIDING WAKEFIELD. This prison is unfortunately built upon low ground; so it is damp and exposed to floods. Four of the wards are spacious, but all the wards are made vary offensive by sewers. Prison and Court are out of sight from the keeper's house, though adjoining; and some prisoners have escaped. They are now let out to the Court only half an hour in the day. The wards ore dirty. A prison on ground so low as this requires the utmost attention to cleanliness. Allowance: twopence a day; little or no employment". The West Riding Magistracy appear to have accepted these criticisms in the right spirit, as in January 1775, they ordered their clerk to send a letter to Howard "acknowledging the useful and important hints that he has given concerning the House of Correction and that they shall count themselves obliged to him for any further suggestions that may enable then to promote the welfare of the community by just regulation of everything that respects the confinement and ordering of prisoners within their districts".

From 1786 onwards the records of the West Riding Quarter Sessions reveal a genuine effort on the part of the Justices to purge their prison of abuse and to place its administration on a sounder footing. We find, at this time, instructions being issued as to the desirability of providing separate cells; all walls and ceilings were to be lime-washed; prisoners' clothing to be fumigated on admission; prisoners were to wash their hands, face and head at least once every day with soap and water and male prisoners were to be shaved as often as might be proper. These attempts to improve the standard of personal hygiene and sanitation were quickly followed by 1788 by the issue of Standing Rules, made by the Justices, for the government of the House of Correction. These praiseworthy efforts on the part of the Justices were negatived to a great extent by the appalling inadequacy of he accommodation. For when another great reformer. Elisabeth Fry, visited the Prison in September 1818, although she found "the whole prison very cleanly", there was gross overcrowding and disorder. This is what 'evening association' from six to eight p.m. looked like to her: "This period as well as most of the Sabbath Day is devoted to noise, jollity and mischief. We were introduced to the felons' day room during the evening. hours of riot and confusion, It was crowded to excess: and never have we seen a company of prisoners more marked by the appearance of turbulence and desperation".

At this period, although the prison had accommodation for only 110 prisoners, it frequently held over 300, and as many as fifty of these were kept in irons. A new chaplain in the year 1817 told the Governor that "he had never before such an idea of the infernal regions". By 1830 the prison had enlarged to accommodate 410 prisoners but in 1832 when the prison "was the scene of a fearful visitation by the Cholera" there were 450 in custody. In order to combat this disease all prisoners who had completed half their sentences were released. Twenty prisoners died, as did the Governor, Mr. Thomas Shepherd. The diet of the inmates at this time consisted of 1 ½ lbs. Bread, 1 pint of ale, 5 ozs. boiled beef, 1 quart of porridge and 1 quart of broth. The original building was, in fact, quite inadequate for the needs of a thickly populated industrial area and in 1842 the West Riding Justices embarked on the building of a new and much larger prison on the Pentonville model at a cost of over £100,000. This building still remains in use today. It seems likely that building operations were not completed until 1849, and that the prison was taken into use piecemeal as each wing was completed.

In 1847 the West Riding Justices entered into a highly profitable contract with the Government by which they undertook to set aside 412 cells in their new prison for the reception of convicts. This arrangement whereby Wakefie1d served the dual purpose of a convict establishment and a local Prison for the West Riding, continued until 1867 when the remaining convicts were transferred to Dartmoor. The period from 1850 when the new prison was completed until 1877 when it passed from the control of the County Justices to that of the Prison Commissioners, was one of steady improvement and advance. At the time there were 1451 cells but even this proved inadequate for we find as many as 1560 prisoners confined at one time of the year. Nevertheless despite the persistent overcrowding the last two governors of Wakefield prior to the change over to central control in 1877, Mr. Edward Shepherd and Captain Godfrey Armitage, achieved a great deal in changing a purely penal establishment to an industrial centre where useful productive work brought an income of from £6,000 to £10,000 a year after paying all expenses. Armitage in 1873 was far in advance of public opinion in asking that prisoners should be paid for their labour. It was in fact during the second half of the nineteenth century that Wakefield Prison first became known as a pioneer establishment and its success caused it (to quote Captain Armitage) "most vigorously to be assailed". The outstanding feature of this period was the introduction at Wakefield of industrial employment for prisoners on a large scale, in place of the monotonous and unproductive drudgery of the crank and the treadmill. The West Riding Justices were profoundly sceptical of the value of penal labour and in Mr. Edward Shepherd and Captain Godfrey Armitage they were served by enlightened and progressive men. Their views on the employment of prisoners were not to gain general acceptance until the Gladstone Committee had reported in 1895. There can be 1ittle doubt that Wakefield Prison was the most efficiently administered of the County Gaols at the time of its handing over to the Prison Commissioners in 1877.

In the twentieth century further developments of major importance have originated in Wakefield. It was selected by Sir Maurice Waller and Sir Alexander Patterson in 1922 as the starting place of the new methods which they introduced in prison training. In 1923 what was to become known as the Wakefield System was initiated. This was the first step in the development of the idea of "classification of prisons", for Wakefield became the first "regional training prison". The Wakefield System was an attempt to create an atmosphere of trust and self-responsibility in which an intensive system of training could be carried out. The main characteristics of the system were the development of good quality industries and vocational training classes in skilled trades; the organisation of full and varied education and recreational programmes so that little time need be spent in the cells which were allowed to stand open all day; and finally daily freedom of association and freedom of movement within the prison without direct supervision so that self-discipline and self-responsibility might come to replace enforced obedience.

In 1929 in co-operation with the Howard League for Penal Reform the first experimental prisoners' earnings scheme was instituted. In 1933 the Report of the Departmental Committee on Employment of Prisoners stated that they were "greatly impressed by the good results of the experimental system of payment in force at Wakefield" and added that they thought "the extension of a system of payment to other establishments on similar lines should be made". This recommendation was fo1lowed and the system was then extended to all establishments with little change of principle.

Another significant development took place in 1936 and is recorded in the following often quoted passage from Sir Lionel Fox:

"Some miles out of Wakefield, on a high space cleared from the woods stands a curious little cabin: it is built of the discarded doors of prison cells. This, the first building of New Hall Camp, symbolises the start of the open prison system in England". Since that time the extension of the open prison system has been such that all prisoners who can properly be placed in open conditions whatever the length of the sentence (excepting those of a few weeks) may now be sent to an open prison. There are at present seven open local prisons, three open regional prisons and one open central prison; and in addition two closed prisons have open satellite camps.

Just before the outbreak of the war in 1939 the new Imperial Training School for Prison Officers was completed and although it was taken over during the war by the Army Education Authorities, it was opened in its true character in 1946. The training of Prison Officers had been carried on at Wakefield since April 1925 when training was first put on a regular basis with an approved syllabus under the Governor of the Prison. By 1959 more than ten thousand, five hundred students had passed through the Imperial Training School. In that year the function of basic grade training was taken over by the Officers' Training School which was set up at Aberford Road, Wakefield, in "temporary" buildings which had at one time been used as a Teachers Training College. The Imperial Training School then began a new life as the Staff College of the Prison Service with the primary function of training men and women for the Governor grades but with such additional tasks as the running of Refresher Courses for all Grades of the service and the training of senior officers from Overseas. Co-operation between the Staff College and the Prison is close and constant.

In recent years Wakefield Prison has been among the first to adopt such new procedures and techniques as the Hostel Scheme, the Induction Unit and the Pre-Release Course. In 1958 Wakefield was the first prison in this country to introduce a Group Counselling programme. The use of this new method of treatment or training has since been extended to a large group of selected establishments, both prison and borstal.

Those then are some of the landmarks in the history of Wakefield Prison. Prisons are not usually attractive places, nor are they designed to be; and such traditions as they have are often of repression and brutality.

To this rule, however, honourable exceptions can be found; and Wakefield Prison can justly claim to be one of them.


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This page (histpris.html) was last modified on Tuesday 24/04/2012