A History of Historic London Prisons

Transportation and Floating Prisons

By the 1770’s crime in Britain was rampant, even though there were over 200 offences that carried the death penalty, including minor crimes such as cutting down a tree.

Eventually, execution became considered too harsh and transportation was favoured as a more humane alternative.

From the 1620s, Britain had transported its convicts to North America. However, the American Revolution in the 1770s meant that this was no longer an option.

With nowhere to transport its convicts to, Britain’s jails soon became more overcrowded and derelict ships known as hulks, many anchored on the Thames at Woolwich, were used as makeshift floating prisons.

In 1789, Britain was able to resume its transportation policy, sending its convicts to Australia. This practice finally ended in 1869.

Early 1800s London Crime

In the early 1800s, London was a fairly unsafe place to live.

There was no London-wide police force until 1829 when the Metropolitan Police was established by Robert Peel. Prior to then, London crime prevention was largely carried out by parish constables and nightwatchmen.

Districts with the highest reported crimes included the City, Soho Covent Garden and Wapping – unsurprising since these were also heavily populated areas at the time.

Criminals included pickpockets, garrotters (muggers), mudlarks (who stole coal from barges) and lightermen (who stole bales of silk from boats).

1880’s Safety

By the 1880’s, London was considered to be the safest place for people and property in the world. Crime tended to be linked to poverty – petty crime typically occurred mostly in winter or when prices rose.

Many Victorians believed that there was a hereditary criminal underclass which resided in London’s rookeries, lodging houses and brothels around places such as Spitalfields and Drury Lane.

They undertook a campaign of slum clearance but this succeeded only in driving the criminals to outlying suburban areas such as Deptford and Vauxhall where they mixed with and influenced the honest poor.

Types of prisons

There were various types of prisons during the eighteenth century, designated for different categories of crimes and prisoners:

Houses of Correction were for minor offences with sentences of less than two years, debtors prisons (e.g. Marshalsea) were for people who owed debts to others (who could define the length of time they spent in them), detentional prisons (e.g. Newgate) were for prisoners awaiting trial and penitentiaries were for convicted prisoners.