Parliamentary Initiatives Motivated Howard’s Prison Investigations

face of a prisoner

John Howard started to investigate prison conditions about the same time as parliamentary initiatives addressed prison conditions. On February 8, 1773, Howard was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire. On February 18, 1773, the House of Commons ordered a bill to relieve acquitted prisoners from paying jailers’ fees. On March 19, 1773, the House of Commons went into committee to consider how to maintain clergy in jails and debtors’ prisons. Samuel Whitbread, a wealthy Bedfordshire brewer, and Robert Henley Ongley, son-in-law of the prosperous Bedfordshire linen merchant Samuel Ongley, were among the seven sponsors of the latter bill.

Howard’s appointment as High Sheriff of Bedfordshire probably occurred in large part through his personal connections to Samuel Whitbread. Howard was sent as a boy from London to Cardington, Bedfordshire, in the late 1720s. There he met Samuel Whitbread, who was born in Cardington and was about six years older than Howard. Whitbread and Howard became close friends. Whitbread subsequently became a wealthy brewer and major landholder in Bedfordshire. Whitbread built upon his business success and local influence to become a member of the House of Commons. Whitbread served as a member of the House of Commons for Bedfordshire from 1768 to 1790. From 1756 to 1758 and from 1762 to the end of Howard’s life, Howard resided in Cardington as a Samuel Whitbread’s friend and neighbor.

Howard was not a natural choice for High Sheriff of Bedfordshire. This office was the highest royal public office in the county. Howard had not previously served in any public office and had no noble or professional credentials. Moreover, under the Test Acts, the holder of this office was required to take the sacraments of the Church of England. Howard was member of a dissenting church. Dissenters would potentially be subject to significant penalties if they refused the declaration and sacraments required under the Test Acts. Howard’s appointment as High Sheriff involved political risks for Howard and his supporters.

Concern about prison conditions had particular local sympathy in Bedfordshire. In the seventeenth century, Samuel Whitbread’s family were lesser gentry in Bedfordshire and held minor public offices. Whitbread’s family probably knew John Bunyan, who also lived most of his life near and in Bedford. Whitbread’s grandfather left the Church of England to join the Independent Church that Bunyan started in Bedford.^ John Howard was also a member of this church until its split in 1772.^ Bunyan achieved great fame as the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan wrote this Christian allegory in Bedford jails where he was held for about twelve years for preaching without a license. The Bedford jails, including the ones in which Bunyan was held, were the first jails that Howard inspected. Religious liberty was a central value to the dissenting communities in which Whitbread and Howard were raised. Whitbread and Howard most likely knew the story of Bunyan’s life, sympathized with him, and valued the spiritual work he produced while imprisoned.

Howard’s interest in prison conditions was closely related to the House of Commons’ interest in prison conditions. As High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, Howard recognized the same problem that was the object of the parliamentary bill in early 1773:

the circumstance which excited me to activity in their {prisoners’} behalf was, the seeing, some – who by the verdict of Juries were declared not guilty; some – on whom the grand jury did not find such an appearance of guilt as subjected them to trial; and some – whose prosecutors did not appear against them; — after having been confined for months, dragged back to gaol, and locked up again till they should pay sundry fees to the gaoler, the clerk of assize, etc.

Howard wasn’t able to resolve this hardship within his office as sheriff:

In order to address this hardship, I applied to the justices of the county for a salary to the gaoler in lieu of his fees. The bench were properly affected with the grievance and willing to grant the relief desired: but they wanted a precedent for charging the county with the expense. I therefore rode into several neighboring counties in search of one; but I soon learned that the same injustice was practiced in them;^

The problem evidently wasn’t just lack of knowledge concerning circumstances of imprisonment, but also local material interests that resisted reform. Howard’s term as sheriff ended on Nov. 4, 1773. He was not appointed to another term. Most likely, Howard did not seek re-appointment because he perceived better opportunities for improving prison conditions through work at the national level.

Immediately after his term as Bedfordshire sheriff expired, Howard began collecting information on prison conditions throughout England and sharing that information with the House of Commons. From Nov. 4, 1773 to Mar. 4, 1774, Howard interspersed traveling to prisons with time spent in London. He collected information at seventeen prisons in eleven counties in mid-England from November 4 to November 27, 1773. He probably spent December and the first three weeks of January in London, except for a trip south of London where, from Dec. 9 to Dec. 17, he collected information at seven prisons in counties southwest of London. Howard may have spent time in December and January with his son, who was in school in London, and with his aunt, who lived in London. During this time, Howard also may have conferred with members of Parliament.^ On Jan. 23, 1774, Howard began another prison inspection tour. Between Feb. 10 and Feb. 17 he passed back through London, where he met with the Select Committee of the House of Commons formed to address prison conditions.^ Howard resumed jail inspections on Feb. 18, heading south, and returned to London by Mar. 1. On Mar. 4, 1774, Howard testified before the House of Commons on the state of prisons in England.

Howard’s prison/jail inspections were closely associated with legislative activity in the House of Commons. On February 17, 1774, a bill directed to relieving fees imposed on discharged prisoners and improving prisoners’ health was read to the House of Commons. This bill added to the similar 1773 bill additional provisions concerning prison sanitary conditions. Prison sanitary conditions and prisoners’ health were central concerns in Howard’s information collection effort. Samuel Whitbread and John St. John, who also may have been one of Howard’s friends, were among the bill’s sponsors. When Howard testified before the House on Mar. 4, 1774, he presented information that he almost surely had discussed with interested members of the House of Commons in previous months. The House greatly appreciated Howard’s testimony. It thanked him with a formal resolution acknowledging the “Humanity and Zeal which have led him to visit the several Gaols of this Kingdom.”

Howard’s collecting information about prisons has tended to be romanticized as the spontaneous initiative of a philanthropic individual who, with his extraordinary collection of information, spurred national reform. As a scholar of Howard’s work has noted, “Although no direct evidence has been adduced, it has been generally assumed that Howard instigated Popham’s action {in introducing in the House of Commons in 1773 and 1774 bills concerning prison conditions}.”^ In The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, first published in 1777, Howard is represented as stating:

Upon this subject {prison conditions} I was examined in the House of commons in March 1774…. Soon after that, Mr. Popham, member for Taunton, repeated the humane attempt which had miscarried a few years before; and brought in a bill for the relief of prisoners who should be acquitted – respecting their fees; and another bill for preserving the health of prisoners, and preventing the gaol-distemper.^

Howard’s chronology is not exactly accurate. Popham sponsored bills for the relief of prisoners in Feb. 1773 and in Feb. 1774. Thus Popham’s second attempt occurred before Howard’s testimony to the House, and Popham’s first attempt was a year before. More generally, the circumstances and dates of the House of Commons’ actions and those of Howard suggest that the possibility of national action to address prison conditions motivated Howard’s extraordinary effort to collect information.

Howard helped to disseminate the acts addressing prison conditions that Parliament passed in 1774. The act concerning the health of prisoners (14 Geo. III c. 59) included a clause authorizing Justices of the Peace “to order this Act to be painted in large and legible Characters upon a Board, and hung up in some conspicuous Part of each of the said Gaols and Prisons.” Howard contributed to furthering that legislative directive:

Acts of Parliament are usually printed on black letter; which from the difficulty of reading might contradict the humane intentions of the Legislature: To obviate this, Mr Howard had the two bills printed in Roman character at his own expense, and sent to the keeper of every county gaol in England.^

The difference between black letter and Roman characters was not merely instrumental; black letter had the weight of traditional legal authority, while Roman characters where associated with religious heresy. Howard did not let such concerns deter him from making the acts more legible (and perhaps also simpler). Such actions were in accordance with the House of Commons’ intention to communicate the law effectively to prisoners.

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