Insanity and Separate Confinement at the Liverpool Borough Gaol

Associate Professor Catherine Cox and Professor Hilary Marland

The ‘purest’ form of separate confinement, introduced at Pentonville Prison in 1842, was a ‘failed experiment’, which was modified significantly after 1847. Yet it remained an influential model of prison discipline for the remainder of the nineteenth century, although the rigour of its implementation across England varied.

HM Prison Walton, Liverpool, 1910. Public Domain.

The new Borough Gaol at Liverpool, which opened in 1855, was explicitly designed and built for the implementation of separate confinement. While accommodating 1000 prisoners, Liverpool Prison was frequently overcrowded. Unsurprisingly, this frustrated the full functioning of separate confinement. In October 1864, the Governor reported that on the female side ‘every year except one (1861) [there were] more prisoners than could be provided for in separate confinement’, while the male side for ‘four years out of nine … had a greater number [of prisoners] than the number of cells’.1 In 1869, 358 women were thrown into the ‘very worst kind of association’, ‘frustrating the object for which the gaol was constructed on the separate system’.2 Nonetheless, separate confinement appears to have remained the goal of the prison’s officers and the Visiting Justices.

From the 1860s, reflecting contemporary changes, the regime at Liverpool became increasingly harsh. Among penologists, alienists and social reformers, there was a broad shift away from earlier, ‘erroneous’ reformist theories towards considering prisoners as incapable of reform. Dr Thomas Laycock of Edinburgh University argued that the habitual or incorrigible criminal was essentially unreformable; a class of people ‘numbering tens of thousands’ so ‘constituted corporeally that they possess no self-control beyond that of an ordinary brute animal – nay, less than a well-bred horse or dog. They are for the most part immoral imbeciles’.3 In this context, in 1864, the chaplain at Liverpool, Thomas Carter, called for the separate system to be modified, increasing its deterrent capacity for repeat offenders and reducing the number of prisoners.

By 1868, the treadmill was in full operation at Liverpool with prisoners spending 6 to 7 hours a day on it. Some chaplains opposed its use, ‘due to its physical effects, which can result in irreparable injury and causes much anxiety’.4 The prison surgeon, Francis Archer, however, who was responsible for certifying prisoners as ‘fit’ to be placed on it, did not think it had ‘prejudicially affected the gelato of the prisoners; persons of a weak frame of body, and those encumbered with an unnecessary amount of fat, of course feel it the most’. Yet, officials’ confidence that the harsher regime had ‘already proved a deterrent to the old thieves’ was misplaced and the number of committals continued to grow, from 884 in the second quarter of 1866 to 1011 for the same period in 1867. By the early 1890s the prison was committing almost 20,000 prisoners a year, most on short-term sentences.

Prison doctors spent a great deal of time investigating cases of mental disorder amongst prisoners, organising removals to other institutions and looking out for signs of shamming. Removals were a significant cost – financial and human – for the Liverpool Corporation and the prison staff. For example, in the year ending September 1877, nine prisoners were removed to the neighbouring Lancashire asylums of Rainhill, Prestwich and Whittingham. It is unclear how far these cases were linked with the separate system, the harsh regime at Liverpool or other factors. For many of the prisoners transferred into local asylums investigations revealed past histories of asylum admission, previous instances of mental breakdown and hereditary insanity. Suicide attempts in the gaol were common but, following investigation, were often dismissed as shamming and prisoners punished. In 1864 when two male prisoners attempted to hang themselves, the Governor claimed that ‘neither had any intention of injuring himself’. The prisoners – rather than the prison discipline and system – were blamed for their mental disorders.

In addition to its size, high rates of recidivism and large number of short sentences, Liverpool was exceptional in its number of Irish and female prisoners. Between 1864 and 1879 65% of those committed to gaol were Roman Catholic and 8 out of 10 of these were Irish-born or the children of Irish-born parents. The Irish preponderance was accentuated among women, and Liverpool was ‘the only prison in the world where the females exceed the males’.5 There were few opportunities for female labour in Liverpool and, according to the prison’s minister, James Nugent, ‘the destitute and friendless girl is readily allured into the path of crime’. Women were typically committed on charges of prostitution or being drunk and disorderly. Some were jailed 30, 40, 50 or even 60 times, on short-term sentences. In the first 9 months of 1864, 1,526 prostitutes were committed to Liverpool prison. Almost two-thirds of them were Catholic.6 The passage back to Ireland was paid for some of these prisoners, although they might later reappear in the Liverpool Gaol. While remedial measures – reformatories or migration – were mooted, medical explanations of the ‘incorrigibility’ of such women increasingly suggested that their behaviour was the result of ‘some pathological condition rather than any ill will’.7 Longer sentences were urged by the Liverpool Visiting Committee although they feared ‘there wd be difficulty agreeing to a proposal that Criminals – like lunatics – should be detained till they are cured’.

The peculiarities of Liverpool, a port city, with a vast prison population and large migrant component, and the high number of short-term sentences added to the difficulties of implementing separation and prompted a more penal approach. In this instance, practice was governed by the view that most prisoners straddled the borders of madness and badness and needed to be ‘cured’ of their ‘incorrigible’ natures.


1 Liverpool Record Office (LRO), 347 JUS 4/1/2, Minutes of Liverpool Justice Sessions, vol 1, 5.

2 LRO, H365.32 BOR, Reports of the Governor, Chaplain, Prison Minister and Surgeon, Liverpool Borough Prison (October, 1869), 14.

3 Thomas Laycock, ‘Suggestions for Rendering Medico-Mental Science Available to the Better Administration of Justice and the More Effectual Prevention of Lunacy and Crime’, Journal of Mental Science, 14:67 (1868), 334-5.

4 LRO, H365.32 BOR, Reports of the Governor, Chaplain, Prison Minister and Surgeon, 18.

5 John Belcham, Irish Catholic and Scouse (2007), 82.

6 LRO, 347 JUS 4/1/2 Minutes of Justice, 20-21.

7 Lucy Zedner, Women, Crime, and Custody (1991), 5.

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