Admiration for Jonas Hanway’s Contribution to Penal Policy

face of a prisoner

The few recent historians of prisons and punishment that mention Jonas Hanway have under-appreciated Hanway’s significance for penal policy.^ ^ The only recent work on penal history that takes Hanway seriously notes, “The engaging eccentric has until recently rarely been given credit for his substantial contribution to penal theory….”^

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Hanway was widely known and admired for his contribution to penal policy. Sir Charles Whitworth, a member of Parliament and chairman of the Westminster Charity, appointed William Smith M.D. in 1776 to provide medical assistance to sick prisoners in London-area prisons. Smith later that year published a book on conditions in London-area prisons. In that book, Smith recited at length Hanway’s views and forcefully agreed with them:

The worthy and very ingenious Mr. Hanway recommends solitary confinement, hard labour, and a spare diet, for small and great crimes (murder and some other very atrocious crimes excepted) both before and after trial. This mode of punishment, he says would do more in the prevention of felony, than all the law the wisest legislature can enact. … Nothing but solitary confinement will succeed.^

Jeremy Bentham in the 1770s cited Hanway along with Howard as penal authorities.^ A biography of John Howard published in 1790 described Hanway’s Solitude in Imprisonment as an “excellent tract” and attributes to Hanway “the idea of Penitentiary Houses, where criminals might be doomed to perpetual solitude.”^ As late as 1838, leading British penal reformers cited as a supporting authority “the celebrated Jonas Hanway, whose works {upon prisons and prison discipline}…evince great perspicuity of mind, and benevolence of heart.”^ In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Hanway’s public status was similar to that of John Howard. Hanway subsequently was forgotten, while Howard has been celebrated in penal history and gained an enduring legacy in organizations caring for prisoners.

William Dodd provides a striking example of Hanway’s appeal to society leaders. Dodd, a clergyman, served as chaplain to the King and obtained a Doctor of Laws from the University of Cambridge. He enjoyed “Polite Letters,” fine living, and high society. Unfortunately, Dodd ran up huge debts, “descended so low as to become the editor of a newspaper,” and forged a bond for 4200 pounds.^ He was imprisoned and sentenced to death. A petition with twenty-three thousand signatures, as well as an appeal from the City of London in its corporate capacity, sought mitigation of his death sentence.^ Despite these efforts and further efforts of his friend, the leading English writer Samuel Johnson, Dodd was hanged at Tyburn in 1777.

While in prison, Dodd wrote a lyrical poem about his imprisonment. The poem included a lengthy paean to Hanway. That paean began:

Hail, generous HANWAY! To thy noble plan,
Sage, sympathetic, let the muse subscribe
Rejoicing! In thy kind pursuit, good luck
She wisheth thee, and honour!^

This poem is well-tuned to elite literary conventions, ideas, and expressions of its time. It shows that Hanway was not a figure of eccentricity, but of elite public achievement.

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