Drafting and Editing the State of the Prisons

face of a prisoner

While John Howard formally authored The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777), others largely drafted and edited this book. In 1771, John Aikin authored a book on hospital conditions. Aikin’s book apparently influenced Howard’s subsequent examination of prison conditions. In addition, Aikin helped to draft and edit The State of the Prisons. That book was printed in Warrington, where Aikin lived. In a celebratory, posthumous biography of Howard, Aikin explained:

{Howard} chose the press of Mr. Eyres at Warrington, induced by various elegant speciments which had issued from it, and by the opportunity a country press afforded, of having the work done under his own inspection, at his own time, and with all the minute accuracy of correction he determined to bestow on it. I may also say, that an opinion of the advantage he might there enjoy of some literary assistance in the revision and improvement of his papers, was a farther motive.^

Aikin added that Howard and he formed an “intimate personal acquaintance” when Howard came to Warrington for the printing of The State of the Prisons. Howard in early 1774 had traveled to Warrington to propose marriage to Aikin’s sister. Aikin and Howard surely knew each other before Howard came to Warrington for the printing of The State of the Prisons.

The State of the Prisons was printed at a key geographic node in Dissenting networks that closely connected Howard and Aikin. The Warrington press was founded at the same time as the Warrington Academy. Aikin’s father was a tutor at Warrington Academy. The Warrington press published works from Aikin and other leading Dissenting intellectuals associated with the Warrington Academy.^ Howard was religiously, educationally, and socially a part of the dissenting networks that included Aikin and the Warrington press and academy. The press at Warrington was a propitious place for Howard to draw upon the resources of those networks to produce, disseminate, and promote The State of the Prisons.

Richard Price, another important Dissenting intellectual, also helped to produce The State of the Prisons. Price was one of Howard’s classmates at the Fund Academy in the early 1740s and a close, life-long friend. In Price’s hands, a draft of The State of the Prisons “underwent a revision, and received occasionally considerable alterations.” Price himself may have written a portion of the published version of Howard’s book. In his personal journal, Price described editing Howard’s manuscript as “a burden upon me.”^ In letters to Price, Howard declared:

I am ashamed to think how much I have accumulated your labours, yet I glory in that assistance to which I owe so much credit in the work, and, under Providence, success in my endeavours.

It is from your kind aid and assistance, my dear friend, that I derive so much of my character and influence. I exult in declaring it, and shall carry a grateful sense of it to the last hour of my existence.^

As John Aikin noted in a posthumous edition incorporating Howard’s final prison visits, Price would have worked on that edition as well, if illness had not prevented him from doing so.^

Howard probably made only a nominal contribution to drafting and editing The State of the Prisons. In addition to the work of John Aiken and Richard Price, John Densham, one of Howard’s tutors at the Fund Academy, helped to create from Howard’s notebooks a first draft of The State of the Prisons. Howard’s weak literary skills apparently were well-known among his friends and associates. In his celebratory, posthumous biography of Howard, Aikin acknowledged Howard’s literary “diffidence” in the course of attempting to buttress Howard’s importance as author:

With his papers thus corrected {by John Densham and Richard Price}, Mr. Howard came to the press at Warrington; and first he read them all over carefully with me, which perusal was repeated, sheet by sheet, as they were printed. As new facts and observations were continually suggesting themselves to his mind, he put the matter of them upon paper as they occurred, and then requested me to clothe them in such expressions as I thought proper. On these occasions, such was his diffidence, that I found it difficult to make him acquiesce in his own language when, as frequently happened, it was unexceptionable.^

A thoroughly researched and insightful analysis of Howard’s literary skills concluded:

That such meagre writing skills would have allowed him {Howard} more than nominal participation in organizing and writing up his complex prison data seems to me very unlikely. Any manuscripts he himself may have produced (and only after painful struggle) would have required editing of a kind tantamount to rewriting.^

A Howard biography first published in 1818 mentioned, in addition to Densham, Aikin, and Price, four other persons who helped to draft and edit The State of the Prisons. All were members of Dissenting churches, as was Howard. Other biographers have recognized that Howard probably didn’t write The State of the Prisons. That book seems to have been a collective enterprise among Dissenting intellectuals.

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