victorian stairwell


Disability in the Victorian prison system

How did the Victorian prison system deal with prisoners with physical disabilities? This blog aims to put the experiences of, and policies toward, disabled prisoners in a historical context.

Drawing on research funded by the British Academy, Professor Helen Johnston highlights the penal regimes, medical responses to, and the treatment of those incarcerated under sentences of penal servitude.

Enduring the system

The popular cultural image of the Victorian prison is often based on fictional depictions in nineteenth and twentieth-century literature, such as Magwitch, the escaped convict in Dickens’s Great Expectations or the convict hiding out on the moor in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.

They depict a harsh penal environment, prisoner uniforms embellished with broad arrows denoting their status as government property, iron shackles, long hours of exhausting hard labour. These representations often present an imagined air of desperation in convicts’ efforts to escape the horrors of such a system.

The realities of that system do indeed reveal the harshness of the system of long-term imprisonment, or ‘penal servitude’ as it was called, that came to replace sentences of transportation to Australia in the 1850s. But they also reveal the complexities and challenges that prison administrators dealt with inside that prison system. It is difficult to imagine how those with physical disabilities or long-term illness were managed or indeed endured such a system, but they did.

prison bars
The popular cultural image of the Victorian prison is often based on fictional depictions in nineteenth and twentieth-century literature

Light labour

Childhood illness, infectious diseases, poor health, and safety at work and in living conditions meant that physical disabilities either from birth or due to illness or accident, meant that the prison population like any other group in society, contained a proportion of people afflicted with such conditions, though many may not have survived to adulthood.

Perhaps surprisingly in this context prison authorities did acknowledge that certain prisoners could not endure the long hours of heavy labour in the quarries of Portland or the arduous hot laundries of the female prisons.

The then Director of the Convict Prisons, Joshua Jebb created a system by which some convicts could be allocated to ‘light labour’. As labour was the activity that took up much of the daily prison timetable this could be crucial for those serving a long sentence.

However, the gatekeeper to an ‘easier’ regime was the medical officer. In general, prison medical officers were not well liked by the prison population, as the former regarded prisoners’ claims of ill health with a great degree of scepticism and suspicion.

Medical officers were ever wary of the ‘malingerer’; prisoners using a variety of excuses in their attempts to gain a slightly better diet or support a request to change work parties or avoid labour altogether. Imagine a scene like the one where Norman Stanley Fletcher’s ‘dodgy feet’ are repeatedly dismissed by the prison doctor in an episode of the classic 1970s sitcom, Porridge.

Despite this general air of contempt toward the prison population, Jebb’s solution was to allocate a whole prison for people, they then termed ‘invalids’; those through health, disability, age or infirmity and this large prison opened in Woking during 1859-1860.

A separate location for ‘invalid’ prisoners was not unheard of, as in previous decades, hulks (decommissioned warships moored on the Thames and South Coast) were used to hold ‘invalids’ sentenced to periods of transportation and a proportion were pardoned due to their condition.

Dartmoor prison, which reopened in 1850, also took prisoners allocated to ‘light labour’ and continued to do so in the following decades.

Woking prison

Of those initially transferred into the new Woking Invalid Convict Prison, the population had both physical and mental disabilities or illnesses. A few years later in 1863, Broadmoor opened and a proportion of those with mental ill-health were sent there.

Woking was conceived as a hospital where the goal was to treat prisoners under their care and then return them to the other prisons in the system. Designed by Jebb and Arthur Blomfield, it was built by convict labour.

Many of the prisoners at Woking did undertake work and reportedly were happy to do so, tasked to knitting, washing, oakum picking and shoemaking.

At the height of its use Woking held around 1400 inmates. However, by 1886 it was decided the prison should close, the wider long-term prison population was in decline and the whole site was transferred to the War Department, who developed it as Inkerman Barracks.

Elizabeth Harris spent periods of her younger life in and out of the workhouse and by the time she was convicted and sentenced to five years’ penal servitude for larceny as a servant, her health had further deteriorated.

Confined for long periods in Woking infirmary due to emphysema and asthma, she was given multiple treatments including coffee instead of tea and two ounces of whisky per day. The doctor supported her petition for early release stating the severity of her asthma attacks during the cold months of the year, but the authorities saw no grounds for her early release.

Ill health

In contrast, Mary Wallace, a widow from Sunderland, was sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude for larceny of two sheets by Durham Quarter Sessions in 1866. She was released on licence four years and five months early due to atrophy, a condition that saw her transfer from Brixton prison to Woking for treatment. But Mary’s case was really an exception.

Most conditions of ill health were due to poverty and poor living conditions and in a wider study undertaken (see Johnston et al, 2022) about 28% of the whole prison population had medical treatment in prison more than once during their sentence. In most cases there was little the medical officers could do except to prescribe alterations in diet like the addition of milk, fish or meat, Bovril, sometimes whisky or stout.

This research is funded by the British Academy and led by Professor Helen Johnston and Dr Jo Turner (Staffordshire University). Professor Helen Johnston is Programme Director MA Criminal Justice & Crime Control and Co-Director of Centre for Criminology & Criminal Justice (CCCJ), Department of Criminology & Sociology at the University of Hull.

Read more on this subject here.

Visit the 'Our Criminal Ancestors' page here.

Last updated