Visiting a Victorian convict prison

In the first of our teaching related posts Dr Guy Woolnough, Teaching Fellow in Criminology, discusses the work he has been doing with second year Keele Criminology students on the module ‘Crime, Culture and Conflict: 1700-1914’.

This week in their tutorials the students on the Crime Culture and Conflict module will be looking at some Victorian convict prison records. It’s the second week of this exercise: on November 8th, they were handling documents from the men’s convict prisons, on November 15th, it’s the female convicts.


William Smith

Students find the reading a challenge, but once they have got to grips with it, it is very rewarding. The fascination comes from the detail. For example, William Smith got 10 years, but it is not obvious what the crime was. It is recorded as ‘B—–y’, so students had to work out for themselves what the crime was that was so dreadful that it could not be written down. Students further noticed that William was punished for ‘filthy conduct’ and ‘undue familiarity with a prison officer’.


Frederick Brooks

Frederick Brooks served five years for assaulting a senior officer when he was a soldier in India. The students discovered that Fred was suicidal: he was punished for throwing himself from a ferry and into the river and failing to grasp the boat hook proffered by the warder. This unhappy man was in constant trouble. Students were shocked to see that he received 24 lashes, had his mattress and clothing taken away and was shackled for some of his sentence.

Using these primary sources is an innovation on the programme. The students have found that it gives depth to the theoretical analysis of lectures and readings. Foucault makes more sense when you can examine the micro-physics of power in operation upon an individual in a Victorian gaol. The degree of surveillance become apparent when one examines a detailed list of the letters sent and received by a prisoner, when one checks the prisoner’s medical records over a number of years, and can see exactly how much progress he made in the prison school.


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