Victorian England's Female Offenders

Prison: A punishment for the mind . . . and the body?

Convict prisons kept some of the best records about prisoners in the nineteenth century. They tell us where prisoners came from, what they did for a living and their record of previous convictions. But more than this, they detail how men and women spent months and years of their lives in prisons. The work assignments they undertook, who they wrote to and who wrote to them, the infractions they made against prison rules and the punishments they received. As well as their behaviour, prisoner’s bodies were strictly regulated and recorded during their time under sentence. Not only do prison dietaries show us what prisoners ate on a daily basis (even allowing us to calculate, down to the calorie, how much energy they imbibed and expended each day), they also show us the common health problems –and solutions- prisoners experienced.

Prison Dietary Berwick 1849Example of  prison dietary from Berwick Prison, 1849

Prison medical records are particularly fascinating in the case of female offenders because they constitute some of the only surviving health and medical data for working-class women until the formation of the National Health Service. I’ve blogged before on how some of the discipline records kept by convict prisons can hold the key to understanding how women’s mental health fared in prison, and how mental illness was dealt with by penal regimes. However, recently, my work with height and weight data has made me think about how women fared during imprisonment from a physical perspective too.

Medical history sheets give us a great ‘snapshot’ of women’s health and bodies as they entered prisons. We know  if they had suffered from common ailments such as smallpox, syphilis, or rheumatism. These records not only contextualise incidence of illness and care inside prison, they also give us fascinating context for women’s lives outside prison. For example, ‘descriptions’ of prisoners taken for identification purposes often detail missing body parts – such as teeth, fingers, and even eyes. They recorded the scars that women’s bodies bore, from burns, accidents, and incidence of interpersonal violence.

Physical descriptionPhysical description of  Mary Lynch, 1872. Text reads: ‘Nose Broken, Ears Pierced. Slight mark over right eye. Lost one top tooth.

Prisons also began to record the height and weight of their inmates which offers historians the potential to think about women’s nutrition and health inside and outside of the institution. Taking a random sample of fifty London offenders from the Digital Panopticon project (imprisoned between 1880-1885) we can measure that on average the women began a term in convict prison weighing 123.5 lbs, whereas they left prison weighing 129lbs, gaining around six pounds each over the course of their imprisonment. Of course, most women spent years in prison and while under sentence their weight could fluctuate hugely. How much weight a woman lost or gained was not only due to the diet and work requirements at a particular institution, but instances of illness too, so more comprehensive conclusions are a way off. Yet even having the opportunity to identify a general trend for weight gain (or, indeed, weight loss) is important evidence which helps us understand how women’s lives led them to prison, how penal regimes affected women. Those that left prison weighing more than they did on reception may have experienced poor nutrition or illness prior to their convictions. Essential pieces of information for contextualising women’s crimes within their broader lives and well-being.

Mary Lynch’s weight record 1872-1885

The relatively young age of female prisoners means that the few years they spent in prison was often fairly uneventful – from both a disciplinary and medical perspective. But prison records contain enough instances in which women did see the prison medical officer so that we can begin to see patterns in the common health problems they experienced.

Common medical problems amongst women at this time included Catarrh (bronchitis) which while sometimes caused by viruses could also be caused by exposure to irritating substances, such as tobacco smoke, fumes, and fibres, many of which were common place in the factories, furriers, and residential areas in which poor women lived and worked.  Women also suffered from ‘debility and diarrhoea’ – periods of weakness as their bodies adjusted to the change in diet and regime. One of the most interesting and widely spread complaints specific to women was dymenorrhoea (a blanket terms used for heavy or painful menstruation). Of course, its important not to make too many generalisations with limited information on this condition. However the commonness with which women reported dymenorrhoea, combined with a general trend for weight gain, might suggest that, for younger women especially, long terms of imprisonment were some of the first instances in life in which they were well-nourished enough to regularly menstruate – causing them to report unexpected instances of painful and ‘heavy’ bleeding.

Medical records also give us the opportunity to see how medical professionals treated the complaints of convict women. For many offenders, imprisonment was the first regular access to medical care they had every had experienced. Prison medical records contain evidence of both care for patients, and the dismissal of many women’s complaints as medical officers attempted to treat the sick and maintain the punitive element of their incarceration.

Medical record in prisonRecord of prisoner complaints and medical officer’s evaluation and action.

Information about prisoner’s health and medical treatment opens up so many opportunities to think about the experience of imprisonment, the impact prison had on women’s bodies, and the health of working class women outside of institutions. In what I hope is the first of several posts, I want to pose some questions, rather than offer any conclusions. We know that long terms of imprisonment could have detrimental effects on the mental health of prisoners, and we know that Victorian convict prisons made very little provision to deal with mental illness, or to protect the mental health of patients. Prisons broke the spirit, ground men good, and hoped to psychologically reform criminal characters. But what did they do to, and for, body? Was imprisonment more gruelling on women’s bodies than their lives outside prison, or did incarceration offer an opportunity for women’s health to improve? Was prison a punishment for the body as well as the mind?

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8 thoughts on “Prison: A punishment for the mind . . . and the body?

  1. lauramarysellers on said:

    Hi, would it be possible to share the source of the record of prisoner complaints? I have been looking for something like this for a while and not come across such detailed examples. Thanks.

  2. Hi Laura, these are from the PCOM4 ‘UK Licences for Female Parole’ held at TNA. The male equivalent is the PCOM3 collection, Details here: https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/?p=1068 The medical records are best from about the 1870s onwards. Your PhD looks really interesting. How far along are you?

    • lauramarysellers on said:

      That’s great, thank you!! I’ve been looking at a slightly earlier period which might explain why I haven’t come across the best examples, but I’m so pleased I saw your blogpost which flagged them to me. I’m coming towards the end of my PhD so I’m in the editing stage, although suspect there will be a few more things to add in as I go.

  3. I’m researching Dorset County Hospital (www.historydch.com) including transcribing some of the admissions records. While I’m not using prison records in the same way as you, Dorchester gaol records are a useful source of physical descriptions for individuals who spent time in both institutions. (Equally, military records are an excellent source for physical descriptions and medical histories for soldiers and sailors who finally ended up in the hospital.)

  4. Karl Healy on said:

    Hello, were the dietaries set by central government or individual prisons. For many working class prisoners it may of been the first time they eat meat on a regular basis. When my grandfather born 1918 was growing up he said it was normal in working class family’s for only the father of the house to eat meat. Really enjoy reading your posts.

    • Hi Karl, Thanks for reading.
      The diet for convict prisons were set for convict prisons – but I’m not sure who designed the diet for local institutions – which could differ in terms of regime. I’m sure that how well prisoners ate on the outside could differ enormously, but yes, for some of the more unfortunate inmates the prison diet may well have been more substantial than what they ate outside. I’m not surprised that there were families struggling to afford adequate nutrition even by 1918. Historian Deborah Oxley has written some fascinating stuff about the working class home, gender, and nutrition in nineteenth century London, which echo your story of the ‘man’s share’ of the household provisions!

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