The Prison Officers

Associate Professor Catherine Cox and Professor Hilary Marland

‘Disorder Contained’ features three prison officers – the chaplain, doctor and schoolmaster – all key players in the running of the nineteenth-century prison, alongside the governor and the warders.

The Chaplain

It was the chaplains who were the strongest advocates of the system of separate cellular confinement and as historian William Forsythe has argued were ‘key actors’ in its implementation.[1] To them, fell the task of making cell visitations, attending sick prisoners and those in punishment cells, as well as leading religious services. Larger prisons with significant numbers of Catholic prisoners, such as Liverpool Borough Gaol, would employ both Church of England and Roman Catholic chaplains to attend to prisoners’ spiritual needs. In Ireland, anxieties about guarding against accusations of proselytism would result in the appointment of Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland chaplains in most prisons irrespective of their size, and in some, such as Mountjoy Convict Prison, Dublin and Belfast Prison, Presbyterian chaplains were subsequently employed.

Many prison chaplains, like Reverend Kingsmill at Pentonville were diligent in fulfilling their tasks and in recording accounts of prisoners’ repentance in the quiet of the prison cell. They sought to win the trust of the prisoners so that they would share their deepest thought, fears and expressions of regret at their sins in earnest conversations and through prayers and admonitions. The chaplain at Parkhurst referred to how in their cells ‘I get into their spirit and worm out their individual trials and temptations, then… I can apply the Gospel remedy to each lad, that I can listen to their regrets on account of past conduct, and to their little tales of home scenes and recollections’. [2]

The ‘Three Rs’

The chaplains’ held high authority in the prison, second only to the governor and reflected in their high remuneration. The chaplain’s salary at Pentonville was £400 per annum, less than the governor’s (£600) but more than the medical officers (£300).[3] At Mountjoy the salary of the Catholic chaplain was £150, as was the Deputy Governor’s and the medical officer’s while the Governor’s was £350.[4] As well as their religious duties, the chaplains in England were also responsible for the supervision of the schoolmasters and regulation of what was taught and the content of the prison library. An important element of the programme of reforming convicts was an urgency to improve their level of education and to teach them the ‘three Rs’, as literacy rates among prisoners was usually extremely poor. These skills would equip them to read the Bible and other religious works, but also enable them to strive for a better life following their transportation to Australia or one of the other colonies.

It was Reading Gaol that put education into effect in a particularly extreme form, ‘In this prison the inmates learned lessons and read literature all day, except when exercising, attending chapel, and cleaning cells, etc. As a privilege they might, “when tired of reading”, “pick a little oakum”.’[5] The establishment was regarded as a ‘criminal university’, with the nickname ‘Read-read-reading Gaol’. The system did not endure for long under heavy criticism from the prison inspectorate. At Mountjoy and other Irish prisons, the relationship between the chaplain and schoolmaster was also complicated by accusations of proselytism. While chaplains visited convicts in their cells every day and went to the school classes, they were not ‘to exercise any direct control over the School master’. The schoolmasters were to confine themselves to secular education.[6] In both England and Ireland, the schoolmasters were also important figures for the identification of signs of mental disorder and weakmindedness – ‘uncontrollable rage’, ‘mad excitement’ or just an inability to learn – among their charges.[7]

The Doctor

Prison doc cropped
Howard League Collection, Modern Record Centre, Warwick

The relationship between the chaplain and doctor was more complex. Prison surgeons had major responsibilities in terms of taking care of the physical and mental health of convicts and the health of prison staff, as well as the general prison environment and guarding against outbreaks of epidemic disease. Yet despite their many responsibilities, they were widely regarded as professionally inferior, and lacking any specialist training in treating mental illness, it was the chaplain who often claimed authority in the regulation of prisoners’ mental state. Disputes could arise between the chaplains and surgeons as they debated the state of mind of individual convicts and particularly as they sought to assess whether they were feigning insanity.

After Acts of 1850 and 1865 in England and the mid to late 1850s in Ireland, medical appointments became better regulated and the status of prisoner doctors tended to improve. Prison medical officers sought to enhance their standing as specialists in prison medicine and to form a distinct professional identity. However, they remained caught in a tension between loyalty to the prison regime and its governance and to the health and wellbeing of their prisoner patients. Often they were called on to adjudicate in cases where prisoners were suspected of feigning insanity or physical disorders. They also were responsible for deciding on prisoners’ fitness for punishment or to undertake hard labour. Dr John Campbell, who was Medical Officer at Woking Invalid Prison, used galvanism or ‘the battery’ to catch out prisoners who he suspected were feigning paralysis. One prisoner had been in hospital ‘perfectly helpless’ and confined to bed for two years and ten months. Growing suspicious, Campbell applied the battery and after six days the prisoner could stand but still refused to walk. Three days later he was walking with the use of crutches and when he was on his way to have the battery applied for another day, the prisoner had walked unaided to the exercise yard! He was later removed from Woking to a labour prison.[8] Prisoners themselves were often critical of the prison medical staff, who they accused of ignorance and failure to perform their duties effectively. Prison regulations required that prisoners’ complaints be investigated and while many were dismissed as groundless, ex-convicts did provide evidence of medical neglect to numerous parliamentary inquiries. In his evidence to the Kimberley Commission on Prison Servitude (1878), prisoner E.R., commenting on the actions of the medical officer at Spike Island Prison, Cork, criticised him for ‘inhuman cruelty to keep these poor maniacs in perpetual cells until reason had become undermined from hunger, flogging, and deprivation of the air of heaven.’[9]

The management and smooth running of the nineteenth-century prison fell to a collection of individuals who were each concerned with asserting their own professional identity and expertise within the justice system. Yet some would become increasingly critical of this system, particularly towards the end of the nineteenth century, joining forces with organisations like the Howard Association and the voices of prison authors, including Oscar Wilde, in castigating the prison system for its inability to reform, cruelty and stupidity.


[1] William James Forsythe, The Reform of Prisoners 1830-1900 (1987), p.48.

[2] House of Commons Papers, Report on the Discipline and Management of Convict Prisons, 1852 (1852-53) [1659], pp. 68-9. Cited ibid., p.47.

[3] House of Commons Papers, Report of the Commissioners for the Government of Pentonville Prison, 1845 [613], p.23.

[4] National Archives of Ireland (NAI), Government Prison Office (GPO), Letter Books, GPO/LB/12, 7 July 1849–14 Dec 1851, p.60.

[5] Edmund DuCane, The Punishment and Prevention of Crime (1885), p.79. Cited Philip Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives: English Prison Biography 1830-1914 (1985), p.108.

[6] NAI, GPO/LB/12, 7 July 1849–14 Dec 1851, p.63.

[7] NAI, GPO/PN/2, Mountjoy Prison, Headmaster’s Journal, June 1857–July 1866, p.25; TNA, PCOM 2/353, Chaplain’s Journal, 1846–51, 9 Sept 1846, p.15.

[8] John Campbell, Thirty Years Experience of a Medical Officer in the English Convict Service (1884), pp.66-7.

[9] House of Commons Papers, Royal Commission into Penal Servitude Acts, Minutes of Evidence (Kimberley Commission) (1878-79) [C.2368 C.2368-I C.2368-II], p.838.

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