The destination for history

Hard times in prison in the 1880s


In the 1880s most prisons would begin their day by waking their prisoner’s with a ‘warning bell’ at 6.20 a.m. and a rising bell at 6.30 a.m. when the prison bell – a hand bell rung by the warders or a buzzer – would be sounded, signalling for the warders to assemble and the prisoners to rise. For some, the arrival of the day was greeted with relief.

At Pentonville one prisoner recalled: ‘the horrible sensation of cold in the morning in those cheerless cells. It was not so much the intensity of the cold, for probably the cold was not so intense, as the abominable feeling of always waking cold and the hopeless and helpless feeling that there was no prospect of going to sleep again, and no possible way of getting warm till the bell rang and you were allowed to get up and put on your clothes.’

Once the prisoners were up and dressed, the cell doors would then be opened and the prisoners would do their ‘slopping out’ (emptying chamber pots) and attend to their cell chores: rolling away their mattress, folding sheets and ensuring that their tinware ‘brights’ of chamber pot, plate and mug were properly cleaned and burnished to a shine. All cells would be inspected to see that this had been done.

After chapel and breakfast the prisoners would be set to work. Those sentenced to hard labour were still, at this point, ordered to work the treadwheel. Each of these dreadful devices contained twenty-four steps, set 8ins apart, so the circumference of the cylinder was 16ft. The wheel, under the power of the convicts walking up its ‘steps’, revolved twice in a minute, with a mechanism set to ring a bell on every thirtieth revolution to announce the spell of work was finished. Every man put to labour at the wheel worked fifteen quarter-hour sessions, climbing up to 18,000ft every day.

This system was not without its tragedies. Here are two examples. Arthur Simmonds was twenty years old in June 1888, and was serving a sentence of eighteen months with hard labour at Pentonville for stealing a letter. After three days of working six hours (with the official breaks) on the treadwheel, he found that his feet were ‘four or five times their ordinary weight’. He could hardly walk upstairs and could not eat his food. He was removed to hospital, where he died a few days later. At the inquest the doctor gave the cause of death as ‘brain disease’, and the jury therefore returned a verdict ‘in accordance with the medical evidence’. Others were like sixteen-year-old Albert Trendall, who had been imprisoned at Coldbath Fields for six months in 1885 for an attempted break-in. He simply could not stand facing the wheel day after day, and hanged himself from the gas bracket in his cell.

By Neil Storey

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