Prisoners in England and Wales from 1670: Long-run Trends

face of a prisoner

Prisoner statistics from 1670, with yearly counts by sex from 1779. Prisoners distinguished as debtors and criminals, prisoners held in local prisons and convict prisons, including hulks. Yearly data on prison commitments by sex, 1805-1892.

Statistics on prisoners in custody in England and Wales span centuries. This dataset contains a rough estimate for prisoners in 1670; good estimates for prisoners by sex from about 1780 to 1830 by decades; and from 1836 to the present, yearly estimates. These prisoner counts encompass prisoners held in local prisoners, prisoners held in convict prisons (fully distinguished from local prisoners in 1848), and prisoners held in hulks (non-seaworthy ships used to hold prisoners). All prisoners counts are differentiated by sex.

These figures represent the average daily number of males and females in prison during the year, not the number of persons sent to prison in that year. Where counts of prisoners in prison at some time during a year are the only data available, we use those counts as the (best available) estimate of the average number of prisoners in prison during that year. Prisoners held for a short-term (less than a few days) account for a much larger share of total commitments than of the average number of prisoners in custody.

The definition of prisoner is based on the category used in the compilation of prisoner statistics at the relevant time and place. The figures exclude juveniles in facilities specifically for juvenile delinquents, but include juveniles in facilities in general use as prisons. Similarly, the figures exclude persons described as insane and placed in facilities specifically designed for the insane, but include insane persons in facilities in general use as prisons. The counts do not include persons held in military prisons or prisoners of war. The figures include military prisoners held in non-military prisons. From the years from 1838 to 1842, the average daily number of military prisoners in the Millbank Penitentiary was 92, 125, 140, 145, and 130, respectively.^ Most likely, few military prisoners were held in any other prison in England and Wales. Persons in prison for debt are included in the counts of prisoners.

The dataset includes some information on types of prisoners and commitments. For some years, debtors, misdemeanors, and felons are distinguished. Some data separate adults and juveniles. In addition, data for commitments (for trial or bail and/or for summary convictions) from 1805 to 1892 are also given. Subsequent commitment data are readily available from official sources.

From 1848 through the mid-1920s, local prisons were distinguished from convict prisoners. Convicts prisons held prisoners serving longer sentences. The national government controlled more tightly the administration of convict prisons. The convict figures do not include convicts imprisoned in local prisons from which the national government rented space. On Dec. 31, 1850, there were 832 convicts imprisoned in rented spaces in local prisons.^ From 1853 to 1855, the Wakefield House of Correction had a daily average of 362 convict prisoners.^ Convict prisoners held in local prisons are included in the local prison totals. Convict prisoner figures for the years 1848 to 1856 are much less well-organized in official sources than the convict figures for subsequent years.

Dataset sheets:

  • prevalence comparison: prisoners per 100,000 persons in 1670, 1780, 1820, and 2009
  • debtors: persons imprisoned for debt in England, 1670-1850
  • prisoners yearly from 1779: summary of prisoners by sex yearly for England and Wales from 1779, compiled from other sheets in dataset
  • prisoners from 1900: prisoners by sex yearly from 1900
  • local prisoners, 1836-1902: summary of prisoners by sex yearly held in local prisons
  • local prisoners, 1836-1853: detail of estimates, with data on commitments and debtors
  • convicts, 1848-1902: summary of convicts (long-term prisoners) yearly by sex
  • convicts by prison, 1848-56: prison-specific details for convict prison total
  • hulks 1777-1856: convict prisoners held in hulks (decommissioned ships)
  • commitments, 1805-92: yearly data by sex, with commitments for trial distinguished from commitments for trial or summary judgments
  • commitments 1838, 1850: distinguished by age (adult, juvenile) and reason for commitment (from other prisons, for re-examination, debtors, lunatics)

Related datasets:

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