Thomas Hood on Law and Prisons

Newgate Prison exercise yard

Two of the most important movements of the 19th century were the efforts to reform criminal laws and prisons.

The worst prisons were crowded and filthy. They provided insufficient food of poor quality and only emergency medical care. Males and females, children and adults, first-time offenders and hardened criminals were all allowed to mingle. Many were private and run for profit and there was little oversight. Some prisons taught skills such as mat weaving and shoemaking but most made no attempt at rehabilitation. Prisoners were housed on prison ships (the Hulks) until 1856.

As might be expected most prison inmates were from the poorer classes. Even when imprisoned wealthy persons could purchase more comfortable quarters and better food.

At the turn of the century there were over two hundred capital crimes. Branding was legal until 1834. Although not used, drawing and quartering was still a legal punishment when Victoria became queen in 1837. Transportation wasn't abolished until 1857. Public hangings continued until 1868. Imprisonment for debt continued until 1869.

Further, there were repeated attempts to create new laws that unfairly affected the poor, such as "Sabbath laws" (laws to prevent certain activities on Sunday).

Note: Most of the graphics below were not originally associated with the works they accompany. They are meant to illustrate other treatments of the same or similar subjects. The sources of most are show in their captions, when you hold the mouse cursor over them or when you click on some of them to see a larger version.

"Sonnet. A Somnambulist," The Comic Annual (London: Charles Tilt, 1834), 137.

The speaker in this poem dreamed that he or she was climbing a stairway to heaven but awoke to find otherwise.

   Methought that I ascended Jacob's ladder,
   With heartfelt hope of getting up to Heaven,
   Step after step, in endless flight seem'd there;
   But on, with steadfast hope, I struggled still,
   When, lo! I awakened on a sadder stair --
   Tramp -- tramp -- tramp -- tramp -- upon the Brixton Mill!

Brixton Prison treadmill

Brixton was a prison and Mill and stair refer to the prison treadmill. A treadmill is like a water wheel; a person walks on the "paddles" to turn the wheel. A prison treadmill was like a cylinder so that many prisoners could climb the steps at the same time while facing a blank wall.

Brixton was the first English prison to install a treadmill in 1827 and both men and women walked it for hours each day. They were later installed in other prisons in England and the United States. Some treadmills pumped water (Beaumont Gaol) but their primary purpose was punishment.


Vagrants' Prison treadmill

Brixton was run on a modified separate system. New prisoners were kept in complete isolation. If they behaved well they would progress through a series of steps until they could associate and communicate with other prisoners, although they always slept in separate cells. Prisons using the strict separate system keep prisoners apart at all times, even while working on the treadmill (left) and during chapel services and schooling (see below).

Some prisons put prisoners to work breaking rocks and picking oakum. Inmates on the prison ships were taken to shore to scrub rust off cannon balls and perform other kinds of work. Most prison work was onerous but at the end of the day the prisoners could see the results of their labor. After a session on the tread mill there would be only a tally of how far they had climbed.

Stand in front of a blank wall, put your hands on the wall and pretend to walk. How long can you continue? Imagine hours, days, month, years of walking a treadmill. Imagine you think you are climbing a stairway to heaven and discover that you have only been daydreaming and your are actually on a prison treadmill.

a crank in a prisoner's cell

The crank was another machine used in prisons. The box was designed so as to resist the turning of the handle. Prisoners had to crank a certain number of revolutions each day. Sometimes cranks were placed in the prisoner's cell and sometimes there were separate crank rooms.

Charles Reade's novel It Is Never Too Late to Mend (1856) contains an excellent account of life in a prison that employs cranks.

Cranking and walking a treadmill were mind-numbing, meaningless, repetitive and unrewarding labors. Prisoners hated them and would volunteer for any other work. The crank and treadmill were not abolished until the Prison Act of 1889.

"A Friendly Address to Mrs. Fry, in Newgate," Odes and Addresses to Great People (London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, 1825), 23-32.

a prison schoolroom

Elizabeth Fry, a prison reformer, established schools in Newgate and other prisons for female prisoners. Although he admires her, the speaker in the poem asks why the women must commit crimes in order to get her help. He believes that prevention is easier than rehabilitation; it's very hard "To tame the wild-fowl ways of Jenny diver!" Better, he says, to set up schools outside of prison and assist them before they become criminals.

He concludes with an inclusive statement pun: "I don't like your Newgatory teaching."

Newgate did not use the separate system (as did the Surrey House of Corrections at left).

"Fine Arts" in The Works of Thomas Hood, ed. Epes Sargent, Vol 5 (New York: George P. Putnam, 1862), 357-362.

Thomas Landseer's 'Laying Down the Law'

The occasion of the poem is Hood's looking at a print by Thomas Landseer of his brother Edwin's famous painting Trial by Jury, or Laying Down the Law (1840) which depicts

   A POODLE, Judge-like, with emphatic paw,
   Dogmatically laying down the law, --
   A batch of canine Counsel round the table

The engraving will be "an attractive and acceptable one to a Lover of the Fine Arts and of the Faithful Animal." Hood asks "What is the moral of this painted fable?" Is it to show the Chartists who sometimes turn to violence that there is a better way -- law and reason -- by showing "The very Brutes abandoning Brute Force"? Or is it just to show how some lawyers and judges would look if transformed into dogs? He then has some fun by speculating which judge the poodle might represent and showing the similarities between dogs and humans in the legal profession.

illustration of a pun

The poem is humorous but the prose preface to it is not. Hood responds to the introduction of a bill to prevent cruelty to animals (the Dog Bill). This he says should be called "An Act to prevent Dogs being treated like dogs." The play on words refers to humans being treated like dogs, which is worse than the actual treatment of dogs

Dogs are not treated more cruelly than some classes of humans. Poor dogs are not sent to workhouses. They aren't used anymore to power turnspits, but prisoners must still walk the treadmill. Dogs are sometimes whipped but not as severely as humans are with the cat-o'-nine-tails, nor are they branded with a red-hot irons. Dogs may be made to dance in costume but men are made "to dance upon nothing" (hanging). Working dogs work no harder than miners and factory workers.

"Three times three" is the equivalent of "Three cheers for...."

"The Defaulter," The Comic Annual (London: Henry Colburn., 1846) 128-158.

illustration of a pun

In this ten-chapter, comic, prose story the narrator manipulates his fictional readers' responses to the main character by engaging in a dialog with them.

Three junior clerks notice that the senior clerk, Mr. Pryme, is acting strangely. They watch him closely, even follow him when he leaves the office and conclude that he is an embezzler.

One fictional reader says it would be dreadful for a man like Pryme "of genteel habits and refined notions, accustomed to all the luxuries of life, and every delicacy of the season" to be transported to Australia which is the fate of embezzlers. The narrator replies that her concerns are noble, but she should "consider that respectable young woman, [are] engaged at past midnight, by the light of a solitary rushlight, in making shirts at three-halfpence a piece, and shifts for nothing." Further, "[r]eckon, if you can, the thousands of weary stitches it will require to sew, not gussets and seams, but body and soul together." The narrator, who, of course, knows how the story will end, is toying with the fictional reader who now calls Pryme, who had a life of ease but turned to crime, a "horrid, red-faced, bald-pated, undersized little monster."

A female reader now asks if Pryme was transported and the narrator replies yes, but not to Botany Bay -- to "the loveliest part of Sussex." She is outraged: "why it's no punishment at all." That's true, says the narrator, and "think of the hundreds and thousands of emigrants -- English, Scotch, and Irish -- who for no crime but poverty are compelled to leave their native country ... to settle ... in the houseless woods and wildernesses of a foreign clime." That is, they are forced to emigrate because there is no work.

Having turned the reader against Mr. Pryme the narrator continues the story until it is revealed that Mr. Pryme has become a father. He said nothing to anyone at the office because his wife and he had been disappointed many times in the last fifteen years of trying to have a child. His unusual behavior was due to anxiety and worry.

The story is a clever combination of humor and social protest.

See also

Introduction to Thomas Hood