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Towards central control

A fresh wave of public interest in prisons led to the appointment of two committees of investigation by the House of Commons.

Gaols Act 1823

Their reports in 1819 and 1822 provided the basis of the Gaols Act of 1823. This important measure, initiated by the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, marked the beginnings of government efforts to impose general standards in prisons across the whole country.

Though it made no provision for new prisons, it attempted to build on and regulate the penal structure that had been created through local efforts in the counties.

Prison visits

The Act provided for visits by chaplains, salaries for gaolers, banned the use of irons and manacles, and allowed women wardens for female prisoners.

Prisons were to be inspected by local magistrates and their reports submitted to the Home Secretary who would present them to Parliament.

Prisons Act 1835

The Prisons Act of 1835 improved procedures for Home Office inspection by appointing prison inspectors to make annual reports. It also provided prisons with financial assistance from the Treasury.

Once transportation as an alternative form of punishment came to an end in 1853, the number of criminals receiving long-term prison sentences increased. The need for more centralised control over prisons therefore became stronger.

Powers of county magistrates reduced

In the 1860s and 1870s further legislation gradually removed the powers of county magistrates over local prisons and defined the duties of gaolers in great detail.

The Prisons Act of 1877 transferred complete control to the Home Office. At the same time the prison environment was made increasingly harsh in the belief that prisons should act as a deterrent to criminal behaviour.

Related information

Historic Hansard

The House of Commons considers the committee stage of the Regulation of Prisoners Bill

The House of Commons debates the second reading of the Prisons Bill 1877

Did you know?

Between 1787 and 1857, 158,702 men and women were transported to Australia from Britain and Ireland


You can access a biography of

Robert Peel, 2nd baronet

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.

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