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About life in prison

Research at the Norfolk Record Office and the Parliamentary Archives gave the history detectives an insight into life in prison in Norwich in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Prison management

As part of the enquiry into prisons conducted by the House of Lords in 1835 prison governors were asked to submit returns containing information about the running of their prisons. At Norfolk Record Office the detectives found the return sent by William Courtenay, the Deputy to the Clerk of the Parliaments, to John Johnson, the Governor of the County gaol in Norwich, which detailed the average daily number of prisoners, including debtors, and the staff, which included a gaoler, three turnkeys, a surgeon and a schoolmaster.

Daily routines

The county gaol at Norwich castle had a treadmill which was worked by prisoners.The detectives discovered a letter at Norfolk Record Office from Henry Locke who was an engineer and millwright. The letter of  25 August 1825 reported on the condition of the treadmill, which was not functioning properly.  According to Locke it required 35 men to do work the machinery, which should have been achieved by 15 men.

Another glimpse of daily prison routines at the county gaol was given to the detectives by the evidence taken by the House of Lords Select Committee during the enquiry into prisons in 1835.  The committee questioned the Reverend James Brown, Chaplain of the Gaol.  He was asked about visiting prisoners, providing religious instruction, and for his views on punishment, silence and the use of day rooms.  His evidence provides an interesting firsthand account of life at the Castle Gaol at the time.

Treatment of Prisoners

At Norwich City Gaol a committee of nine magistrates met monthly to deal with disciplinary complaints against prisoners and to hear complaints from prisoners against the staff and management of the prison. The minutes of the committee between 1799 and 1809 record routine matters including an instruction to provide clothing for the prisoners such as shoes and other clothes. On one occasion an order was made for the provision of iron bedsteads. When the sessions ordered that soup should be provided the jailer was instructed to try soup making and report back on the cost.

The committee also made recommendations of mercy for deserving prisoners and when reports of lax discipline were made staff were reprimanded by the magistrates. Actions taken against prisoners were generally to confirm punishments suggested by prison management.

On the whole the visiting magistrates worked to ensure that rules for the conduct of prisoners were enforced and that consideration was given to the health and welfare of the prisoners.

Related information

Find connections, past and present, between Parliament and your town

Parliamentary Archives

Parliamentary Outreach

Also in this section

Find out more about the role of Parliament in the wider history of prisons, law and order.

Living Heritage: Law and order