Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

Chelmsford Prison - part 2

chelmsford gaol from an old postcard
Chelmsford Gaol. Postcard date unknown.

A description of Chelmsford Prison in 1842.

Also see Part 1 - a report on the prison from 1848
Newspaper report on an escape from the prison in 1847
Part 3 - a report on the prison from 1860

In the Seventh Report of the Inspectors of Prison, Doctor Thomas Shortt, M.D. wrote a report dated 28 November 1842, on Chelmsford Prison (Springfield). The report provides a great deal of statistical information, but sadly, prisoners were only identified by their initials. That year the prison contained an average of 175 prisoners and a maximum of 217

The Return of Punishments reveal a long list of offences committed against prison discipline. Most of the punishments involved solitary confinement in a cell. Two prisoners were placed in handcuffs or irons.

Fighting, neglecting work, whistling, talking, making signs to other prisoners, singing, swearing, indecent behavior, concealing money, stealing bread, breaking cell pot, having a knife, in bed with another prisoner, insolence, not keeping himself clean, tearing a prayer book.

The Report:

State of the Prison
The building is erected on a slight elevation it is built of brick and seems in a good state of repair the soil on which it stands is clay the drainage seemingly good, but for same time past has required to be frequently cleansed in consequence of the want of water owing to tbe iron pipes originally laid down being nearly filled up with a deposit of sulphate of lime; these pipes, bowever, have been removed and supplied by others of lead and of larger size, so it is confidently hoped that the more plentiful supply of water will remedy this defect.

The prison contains 210 single cells, 8 feet in length by 6 1/2 feet in breadth, and 9 feet high, it also contains 14 large cells measuring 14 feet in length by 8 feet in breadth, and equally high with the others, containing from three to four beds, each making in all about 272 single cells exclusive of the hospital.

Upon the whole the ventilation is good compared with other buildings of the kind each cell having a window that opens at the top to the extent of eight inches with a small ventilator in it for use when it is shut. There is also a ventilator in the ceiling of each cell, which communicates by tubes with the open air on both side of the building. There is also a grated opening on the lower part of each door, but it is considered that a great improvement in the ventilation of the cells might still be effected bv enabling the windows to be opened to the extent of [words missing]

[words missing] since the occupation of this prison in 1826, the number of sick has been on a much more extensive scale than other establishments of the kind - suffering from scurvy; and which appeared with unusual severity, as early as the following year after its first occupation, and has continued to exist ever since with more or less severity, and varying according to circumstances, and always worse in the winter. The disease, however, seems to be confined to the convicted prisoners, nearly; as it rarely appears among the untried whose terms of imprisonment are shorter as stated in Messrs Crawford and Russell's Report, who have no hard labour, who may obtain food for themselves in addition to the prison diet, and who passing their day in the airing yards and day rooms, in which in winter there are fires are not subject to confinement and cold in their cells, to the same extent as the convicts who become exceedingly liable to the disease after a few months' confinement in the gaol and no doubt frequently to the permanent injury of their constitutional health.

The tread-wheel seems to be easily worked and well managed. At present there are 86 prisoners employed on it for five hours daily, and there are 12 on the pump for the same time. The prisoners sentenced to solitary confinement for any period not exceeding 14 days, are confined to a cell unless air and exercise be ordered by the surgeon. Prisoners sentenced to one month in solitude pass the first seven days in a cell, unless otherwise ordered by the surgeon, after which they are allowed to walk in the passage (about 50 feet long) from 10 o'clock in the forenoon to 12 at noon, and the rest of the time they are to be locked up in their cells. The whole details of the prison seem to be very efficiently managed by the present governor Mr Neale.

Since the establishment of the prison, the diet has undergone many changes, and there can be no doubt that of late it has been of a very insufficient nature, the daily allowance being 1 1/2 pounds of bread, 2 ounces of oatmeal, made into a quart of gruel; and after being confined for one calendar month another 1 1/2 ounces made into gruel, or 2 ounces of rice boiled in water, the gruel and rice on alternate days. After the expiration of three calendar months, each prisoner is allowed 2 ounces of meat made into a pint of soup three times a week - instead, however, of the 1 1/2 ounces of oatmeal or 2 ounces of rice, whilst prisoners sentenced or adjudged to hard labour, are granted an extra allowance of 4 ounces of bread and 2 ounces of cheese. At a recent meeting of the magistrates, it was arranged that in future soup was to be allowed from the commencement of the term of their imprisonment when sentenced to more than three weeks' confinement, and on the 25th instant, that the bread should be of a finer quality, and that 1 pound of potatoes and 3 ounces of onions weekly should be added to the above diet.

A uniform clothing of coarse quality and plain colour is delivered to prisoners committed for trial, while a party-coloured dress is worn by prisoners convicted of felony, consisting of a jacket, waistcoat, and pantaloons; they have also a linen shirt which is changed once a week, one pair of shoes, and one pair of worsted stockings, but during the winter months only. The bedding consists of one straw mattress two blankets and one coverlet sheets being allowed only to those in hospital.

The prevailing diseases in this establishment are scurvy, pectoral affections, and bowel complaints.

This affection is sufficiently well marked, the countenance being sallow and bloated, potedical spots in various parts, as the trunk, arms, thighs, etc., which often degenerate into ulcer; the joints are frequently swollen and stiff, and the tendons of the legs in many are rigid and contracted and exceedingly painful; haemorrhages also frequently take place from different parts, such as nose, lungs, etc., this disease is evidently caused chiefly by cold, low diet, and mental depression, and shows itself usually after three or four months' confinement with hard labour, and is evidently influenced both in severity and number of cases by cold and damp weather. It is not, however, by any means of a fatal character as during the last two years there has been no death in the prison from scurvy, the disease having invariably yielded to improved diet lime juice and warmer clothing.

Pectoral Affections
These consist of catarrh, pain in the side, and pain in the chest, with cough, and are in general of a trifling nature and occasioned by cold and insufficient clothing. A case of consumption died on the 21st instant, having been admitted on the 4th January last then labouring under the disease, and although an offer of an appeal for the remission of his sentence was made to his parents, they declined any interference, being satisfied that he could not receive better treatment anywhere else. At present there is one case of ague, which is several years since it was first contracted, and has always been liable to return on exposure to cold and wet. The individual is recovering under the use of quinine.

Complaints are frequent, and are occasioned by cold and insufficient clothing. The surgeon does not supply the medicines; he is attentive to his duties and visits the prison almost daily and at times oftener when his services are required.

Also see Part 1 - a report on the prison from 1848
Newspaper report on an escape from the prison in 1847
Part 3 - a report on the prison from 1860

Place links: Chelmsford

Seventh Report of the Inspectors of Prison

Further reading: National Archives, Crime and Punishment

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