Jonas Hanway’s Rise to Philanthropic Prominence

face of a prisoner

Jonas Hanway’s life is the story of a highly successful public intellectual. Hanway was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1712 to a family that was not socially or economically prominent. He was apprenticed to a merchant. After traveling through Russia to Persia on behalf of British merchants, Hanway achieved notice among the English elite through publication in 1753 of his four-volume travelogue, An historical account of the British trade over the Caspian Sea: with a journal of travels from London through Russia into Persia. By challenging oppressive gender norms that restricted men’s use of umbrellas, Hanway garnered additional public attention. Hanway, however, achieved only modest success as a merchant.

Hanway moved into the field of charitable work in 1756. Hanway achieved great success in this field:

for thirty years thereafter there was scarcely a charitable cause in London in which he was not in some way associated. In addition to founding the Marine Society, the most important new charity of those years, and fathering the 1767 statute {which provided nursing for London’s abandoned infant poor}, he was the principal director of the Magdalen Hospital in its early years, and one of the most active governors of the Foundling Hospital during the experiment with open admissions. He founded Misericordia Hospital to treat veneral disease, and the Maritime School in Chelsea to educate boys for sea service. He was a founder of the Troop Society, which aided British soldiers in Germany and North America, and was an active steward of the Stepney Society, which helped poor boys pursue marine trades. He was the first Londoner to attempt to better the lot of chimney sweeps’ young apprentices, through both charity organization and legislation. ^

A late twentieth-century biographer described Hanway’s motivation as “Evangelical Utilitarianism.”^ He was eulogized as “one of the most distinguished Philanthropists of this or any other age or nation”; “eminently conspicuous, not only in his own country, but throughout Europe.”^ Hanway’s contributions to penal policy were well-known and widely admired in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A memorial to Hanway was placed in the north transept of Westminister Abbey, which became a location for commemorating Britain’s leading statespersons.^

Hanway’s Plan for Solitary Confinement

face of a prisoner

The most prominent early advocate of suppressing prisoners’ communication was the English philanthropist Jonas Hanway. Hanway noted, “Everyone has a plan, and a favorite system.”^ Hanway’s plan was to suppress prisoners’ communication through mass solitary confinement. To help promote this plan, in 1776 Hanway published a small book with a plain grey cover. This modest form allowed it to be marketed for just one shilling.^ Hanway actively promoted his publications and often had institutions with which he was philanthropically associated subsidize and distribute his work.^ Hanway thus vigorously competed in the marketplace of ideas about penal reform.

Hanway’s marketing sense is evident even from the title of his book. Its full title:

Solitude in Imprisonment, with proper profitable Labour and a spare Diet, the most humane and effectual means of bringing Malefactors To a right Sense of their Condition, And how to qualify Offenders and Criminals for Happiness in both Worlds, And preserve the People, in the Enjoyment of the genuine Fruits of Liberty, and Freedom from Violence

The combination of “profitable Labor and a spare diet” appealed to those concerned about public expense on prisoners and to those who believed prisoners should be made to suffer. At the same time, Hanway’s plan claimed to be a “humane and effectual means” for inducing understanding of the prevailing order. In addition, it asserted utilitarian merits that covered both happiness on earth and happiness in life after death. For those not imprisoned, Hanway’s plan promised to ensure that crime did not diminish their enjoyment of liberty and freedom

Hanway’s deliberative tactics were quite sophisticated. Responding to criticisms that his plans were wholly impractical, Hanway, like a shrewd scholar peddling abstract models, linked his work to emotive aspirations and ideals:

We are always to keep such a degree of perfection in government in view, as may stimulate the endeavors of individuals, to maintain the empire of reason, and give peace and justice their true and genuine luster.^

He quickly followed up this statement with an affective international comparison. Noting that a prison recently built at Trim, Ireland, apparently provided cellular confinement, Hanway suggested that the Irish were leading the English, while also calling to the English mind Irish malefactors in England:

Whether the Irish are more or less wise than we are in England, I do not presume to decide; but they seem to shew us an example. If this imprisonment, reputed to be in solitude admits of thieves associating in any manner or degree, it will not answer to the idea I form of absolute solitude. And if Irish malefactors in Ireland are as bad as English, or Irish malefactors in England, the Directors of the Trim Prison may prove short-sighted, though in much less degree than the Directors of our Newgate.^

Hanway also made effective use of upper-class anxieties. He warned that “ill-educated common people” were thronging in London and that “religion is at a low ebb.” He linked concern about bodily disease, and developing medical knowledge, to the political system and penal policy:

as sickness and eruptions in the natural body sometimes grow into chronical distempers, which, if not radically cured, accelerate death; the political system may suffer in the same manner.^

At the same time, the first figure of a criminal that Hanway used in an extended discussion of the need for penal reform was a figure well-known throughout human history, a person probably not particularly intriguing to common people, but an object of intense interest among upper-class social reformers. Hanway’s first figure of the criminal was, of course, a female prostitute.

Concern about Prisoners’ Evil Communication

face of a prisoner

Many eighteenth-century authors, artists, lawyers, philosophers, and reformers declared that communal life within prisons was morally corrupting. Jonas Hanway agreed:

What can be the consequence of associating prisoners, but reciprocal offices in a fraternity of thieves, teaching and learning all the mysteries of rapine and blood; and nourishing a dangerous enemy in our bosom?^

In a book published in 1775 on policing and other topics, Hanway expressed concern about prisoners’ “evil communication.”^ In Solitude in Imprisonment, published roughly a year later, Hanway insistently and forcefully focused on “evil communication” :

When {the heart} is corrupted by evil communication, is it reason, is it common-sense, to expect that corporal punishment alone will produce a reformation? …

In no case can evil communication or drunkenness produce any good. …

Evil communication under all circumstances must be productive of evil effects. …

We have, in practice, departed from the obvious principle that evil communication corrupts good manners.^

Within Hanway’s text, the plain meaning of “evil communication” is communication among prisoners. According to Hanway, communication among prisoners enabled “schools for villainy” that transformed minor offenders into skilled malefactors.^ Intense concern about “evil communication” became Jonas Hanway’s most influential contribution to penal policy.

The phrase “evil communication” has important advantages in the marketplace of ideas. Philosophers, moralists, parents, and others have long discussed the question “Can virtue be taught?” Such discussion typically encompasses a wide field of competing ideas about human nature, virtue, raising children, and educational programs. Hanway shifted focus to the question, “Can vice be taught?” and to generic behavior, “evil communication.” Moreover, he associated “evil communication” with all communication among a class of morally suspect persons not typically participating in deliberations about penal policy, i.e. prisoners. Hanway’s deliberative competitors were left with the inauspicious task of identifying and promoting some type of communication among prisoners that would not promote vice. Not surprisingly, Hanway’s idea dominated the marketplace of ideas.

Apart from his application of it, Hanway’s “obvious principle” does not have a plain meaning. Hanway stated that principle as “evil communication corrupts good manners.”^ Evil communication could mean speaking according to particular conventions considered to be bad (evil rhetorical manner) or it could mean associating with “bad company,” typically represented as persons who are poor, low-class, and foreign. “Good manners” might include appropriate patterns of address, observing conventions of social conversation, and other aspects of communication recognized to be good as a matter of upper-class social standards, such as those of English gentlemen of Hanway’s London society. As one scholar noted of the phrase, “it seems to me to have no edge to it.”^ One might easily empty it of meaning by taking it to mean nothing more than “evil corrupts good,” with evil and good accorded their dominant representations in prevailing public deliberation. Hanway’s well-known principle could thus easily conform to the dominant values of a particular time and place.

Bible quotation on the effect of evil communications: manuscript text of 1 Cor. 15:33
φθείρουσιν ήθη χρήσθ’ όμιλίαι κακαί : Text 1 in the Codex Vaticanus, probably written in the first half of the fourth century G.C.

Hanway’s “obvious principle” is based on a phrase whose meaning has changed significantly over its long, historic voyage of interpretation. Hanway’s reference is almost surely to a biblical verse from a Pauline letter: 1 Corinthians 15:33. The Codex Vaticanus provides the earliest still-existing physical inscription of this phrase . That textual artifact is about 1750 years old. The phrase, however, achieved public prominence much earlier. It occurred about 2300 years ago in the work of Menander, an ancient Greek comic playwright. Menander probably drew the text from an earlier work of Euripides, an ancient Greek tragedian.^ Whether one traces the source to comedy or tragedy, the phrase had much different meaning in Hanway’s Solitude in Imprisonment than it did in ancient Greece.