Prisoners and Prison Staff at the Cold Bath Fields House of Correction

by Kiran Mehta

In The Promise of Punishment: Prisons in Nineteenth-Century France, published in 1982, Patricia O’Brien argued that the prison guard was ‘the most important person in the operation of the prison’ and that ‘the whole disciplinary regime of the nineteenth century [could] be reduced to the dealings of the guard with the prisoner’. Still, subsequent historians—and indeed, even O’Brien herself who dedicated less than fifteen pages to the topic in the aforementioned monograph—have paid little attention to these officers. In this post I try to shed light on the conditions and experiences of prison staff, drawing primarily on material from the eighteenth-century at the Clerkenwell house of correction, known as Cold Bath Fields after 1794.

coldbath-fieldsUntil the start of the nineteenth century, the pay of prison staff was  probably quite low. There are no consistent records of salaries, but there are some hints as to the relative amounts. For instance, in 1778 the Governor, Mr. Hall, informed the magistrates that he had hired two extra men at a total of 12 shillings per week, which suggests that such men were paid six shillings each.[1] Male laborers during this time were paid somewhere between 9 to 12 shillings per week, while skilled laborers could make around 10 to 15 shillings a week.[2] In 1779 the magistrates may have ordered wages be raised to 7 shillings and a sixpence per week, but both of these amounts suggest that prison staff were paid less than the male laborer’s average.[3] Salaries were not reliable. In 1809, for example, the servants were forced to complain to the magistrates because the Governor of Cold Bath Fields, Thomas Aris, had repeatedly failed to pay them on time.[4]

Although it would be ridiculous to suggest that the experience of prison was the same for officers and inmates, it remains true that the daily routine of prison officers could be remarkably similar to that of the prisoners. Firstly, they worked similar hours. Prison officers were required to be present in the prison, actively supervising the prisoners, throughout the day. Prison days were long: in the summer months, for example, the prisoners were out of their cells for ten hours of the day, all of which time the officers were required to be on duty.[5] Although not all officers were required to live full-time in the prison, many did. Out of the 24 ‘servants’, to use the term employed by magistrates in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries to refer to prison staff, employed at Cold Bath Fields in 1823, only ten—seven turnkeys, the storekeeper, the Cook and one of the day watchmen—lived outside the prison.[6] Partly this was due to the regulations: at Cold Bath Fields, the Magistrates required at least half the turnkeys sleep in the prison every night.[7] Given that on an average day in 1823, 551 individuals would be confined in the prison, each servant (considering only those tasked with supervising the prisoners during the day) would have been responsible for supervising at least 32.4 prisoners each day. [8] Certainly an arduous task—or at least so some of the officers thought. In November 1779, one turnkey by the name of Thomas Davis petitioned the Middlesex Prison Committee for some money to compensate his recent blindness. Davis alleged that his blindness had been caused ‘thro[ugh] night watching last winter’, in which he ‘persevered two [too] long in his duty by watching’.[9] The Chaplain, Apothecary and the Governor all confirmed Davis’ claims, and the magistrates recommended that the Sessions pay him a weekly stipend of seven shillings and sixpence.

Given how closely prisoners and the staff lived in addition to the difficulties of the job, we should not be surprised, perhaps, to learn that officers formed diverse and oftentimes illicit relationships with the prisoners. Sometimes these were amiable: in 1776, John Sheldon, a turnkey at Clerkenwell house of correction, related to a jury at the Old Bailey how a former prisoner called upon him at the prison and ‘insisted upon my drinking with him, because I used him well when he was in my custody’.[10] Sheldon appears to have accepted this reasoning and did not view the occurrence as particularly peculiar or inappropriate—despite the fact that the former prisoner then robbed the owner of the public-house from which he fetched the ale. Other guards helped prisoners bring liquor illegally into the prison, like John Stratton and Roger Bridgman who were fired in 1809.[11] Some prisoners, like a man referred to as Hefford, received preferential treatment because of the relationships they formed with staff. In August 1810, the Governor Mr. Aris was reprimanded for allowing Hefford to ‘board in his House contrary to the Rules of the prison’.[12] Similarly, in 1795 the Governors of Bridewell, the house of correction for the City of London, chastised one of their beadles, Patrick Wagland, for whipping prisoners too lightly. By particularly noting that he ‘scarcely’ left any visible markings and performed these ‘corrections’, as they were know, without others present, the Governors seem to be suggesting that Wagland deliberately went easy on the prisoners.[13]

Other prisoners used money to gain advantage over not only the staff but also the Governor. In 1799, the Middlesex magistrates launched an investigation into the Governor of Cold Bath Fields, Thomas Aris, for borrowing substantial sums of money from some of his prisoners.[14] Aris borrowed money from at least three prisoners, one of whom later successfully escaped the prison, aided by another of the lenders. Another of the prisoners, Tomking, had been convicted under the Lottery Act for taking illegal insurance—certainly a dubious person from whom to be borrowing money. Aris claimed that he treated none of these prisoners differently, but this seems extremely improbable. For one thing, Aris elsewhere showed his willingness to favor certain prisoners and ease their imprisonment. For another, it is extremely suspicious that a man who loaned Aris a large sum of money happened to escape the prison successfully. These men, by using the funds at their disposal to loan the Governor  money—or perhaps, by bribing him—put themselves in a favorable position relative to the prison staff.

Suggestively, the Bridewell Governors had a similar problem with prisoners offering to loan the staff money. In 1794, John Gearing the Superintendent, whose job was to keep the prisoners at work, borrowed five guineas each from prisoners Lawrence Bullock and William Smith, both of whom were committed under the Lottery Act. Moreover, not only did he allowed the prisoners to go ‘unemployed’ frequently, but he also allowed them to leave the prison and to bring in liquor.[15] Clearly, the prisoners—or at least some of them—found a beneficial arrangement under Gearing’s management.

The magistrates who administered the house of correction were fully aware of the dangers that might attend an overly familiar relationship between the prisoners and the prison staff. The Middlesex magistrates sought valiantly to prevent such relationships from forming, even going so far as to forbid the prison servants from ‘holding any unnecessary conversation with the prisoners’.[16] They seemed fully aware of the temptations facing servants and were fully prepared to recognize and commend those servants who they believed met their standards of integrity. In April 1813, for example, they praised one of the turnkeys for refusing a bribe and noted that his action was not just ‘highly creditable to himself’ but also ‘important in its example to the promoting of the justice of the county’.[17]

Other prisoners forged alliances with prison officials at the sake of their fellow prisoners. For example, on 8 May 1796, the magistrates rewarded, presumably monetarily, one unnamed male prisoner for making ‘several important discoveries to the Governor of mischevious purposes intended in the prison’—in other words, for spying and conspiring against other prisoners.[18] Presumably other prisoners forged similar relationships with prison officials, perhaps elevating their status and security within the prison while also helping to cushion the transition to life outside the prison.

All of this shows that prison life and the experience of power within prisons was fundamentally shaped by the character of those who staffed the prisons and the relationships that such officers formed with prisoners. Some prisoners clearly found ways to connect with prison staff; others bribed them. Regardless, they found ways to ease the strictures of prison life. Nevertheless, in seeking to qualify the misery of prison life, we should be wary of going too far in the opposite direction. Prisoners could find themselves subject to both lawful and illicit forms of violence and oppression. It was within the legitimate authority of the Governor to order those he deemed refractory ironed—that is, be loaded with fetters or handcuffs—, placed in solitary confinement in dark, small cells, or even whipped.[19] Prisoners could also be subject to illegitimate violence. In January 1797, for example, the Middlesex magistrates recorded their disapproval of the ‘very reprehensible’ treatment that prisoner George Brooks received at the hands of one Price, an officer tasked with ferrying prisoners between the house of correction and the magistrate’s office for further examination. In another instance, the Prison Committee admonished Ambrose Wootton, one of the prison servants, for pushing a prisoner.[21] These examples above are only those in which the perpetrators were caught; there may have been many more instances in which abuses of authority went unpunished (if one can even call the above responses ‘punishment’). Certainly, the many prisoners who launched escapes, risking recapture and further, harsher punishment, seemed to have been desperate to break free.

 Kiran Mehta is a Masters Student at the University of Oxford where she is writing a thesis on the character and function of houses of correction in the London metropolis between 1778 and 1823. She can be contacted at


[1] Ibid: 20 July 1778.

[2] Ruth Paley, Justice in eighteenth-century Hackney: the justicing notebook of Henry Norris, and the Hackney petty sessions book (London, 1991), p. xviii.

[3] MA/G/GEN 1: 27 November 1799.

[4] MA/G/GEN 3: 2 March 1809

[5] MA/G/GEN/1274: Extracts from Acts of Parliament Relating to Houses of Correction and Regulations Proposed for the management of House of Correction, Middlesex (1823), pp. 31, 36.

[6] MJ/SP/1823/02/047: Prison Committee: Reports, Minutes and Administration

[7] Ibid, p. 31

[8] At least their pay was better by then. In 1810, Neild reported that the turnkeys were paid one guinea per week. James Neild, State of the Prisons in England, Scotland and Wales, Not for the Debtor Only, but for Felons Also, and Other Less Criminal Offenders (England, 1812), p. 142.

[9] 27 November 1799

[10] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 12 February 2017), July 1776, trial of John Vozey (t17760710-23).

[11] MA/G/GEN: 5 Jan 1809

[12] MA/G/GEN 3: 10 August 1810

[13] LMA CLC/275/MS33132/001: 2 July 1795

[14] MA/G/Gen 2

[15] CLC/275/MS33132/001: 31 July 1794

[16] MA/G/GEN 299

[17] MA/G/GEN 0382

[18] MA/G/GEN 306

[19] MA/G/GEN 299

[20] MA/G/GEN 314.

[21] MA/G/GEN 3: 22 June 1810

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