Crime and Punishment

The Victorians were extremely concerned about the level of crime which had risen sharply since the beginning of the 19th Century. As industrial towns like Preston grew in population and crime levels increased, more and more people worried how criminals could be kept under control. For the working classes, criminality was often associated with desperate poverty and lack of the basic necessities of life. Others who felt nothing but hopeless despair descended into crime due to alcohol addiction. The vicious circle of chronic and persistent debt was also a deciding factor.

Many in authority felt that prison should be a deterrent, so the food was deliberately poor and conditions uncomfortable. Prison regimes came to be based on the concept of separation, silence, hard labour and moral guidance. Segregation and holding prisoners in isolation so they could reflect on previous actions was also favoured. Many of the activities on which prisoners spent their time had no purpose other than the effort of carrying out the task itself. Prisoners were set such demoralising tasks as the “ Crank”, or the “Treadmill”.

In 1875 a remarkable letter appeared in the correspondence columns of the Preston Chronicle newspaper, from an offender who had experienced conditions within the Preston House of Correction, including the notorious “crank”

Former Policeman Condemns Treatment at Preston Prison

William Wilson of Cunliffe St , Preston was a former Preston Borough policeman. He found himself incarcerated in the Preston House of Correction in 1868 for two months after being found guilty of assault. In January 1875 he described quite vividly his experiences, when he wrote.

“The first night I slept in a cell in yard number 1, which I cannot better describe than by assuring you that they are far worse in every respect, than the Spanish Inquisition so ably described by Liorente in his celebrated history of that institution. They are in such a filthy state that any medical gentleman, save a gaol doctor, would condemn them as totally unfit for a human being to sleep in. On the second day I got a warm bath and was then placed naked on a scale (by the way, they weigh you with your clothes on when you are coming out, in order I suppose, to make it appear that some prisoners gain weight).

I was taken next to a cell in C Corridor in which was a crank handle, which I was told that I must turn 8,640 revolutions or I should be punished. Few of the prisoners can perform the task and therefore lose a portion of their diet.

Many of them take off all their clothes save trousers and may be seen in that state trying to accomplish the task. The operation does no good, for the machine does not grind anything, is totally unremunerative and is solely used to reduce the prisoner’s strength. Some are much easier than others but all too hard for the strength of the half starved wretches who turn them. There are, I am told, over 200 of them. In using the necessary power to turn them you get overheated and when in that state you must take off all your clothes, thrust them through a trap door and lie down on a bare board in order that the draughts of air from four ventilators, may more easily strike cold into your frame.

The board is raised about four inches from the ground so that the air may pass under as well as over the prisoner, in fact, a more diabolical contrivance could not be well invented. The cells are flagged and to keep them delightfully cool, you must wash them about four times weekly to super induce lung disease I suppose. I can assure your readers that before the expiration of one week, I was attacked with Lumbago, Bronchitis and Rheumatic pains in my limbs which have never left me since and probably never will.

In short I fear I will lose the use of my right arm, although I had never to my knowledge, had a single day’s illness in my lifetime and yet had served at home and abroad in both the army and navy. I am fully convinced that hundreds of poor wretches, after a couple of months incarceration in that accursed place, have been compelled to steal in order to support life, having been rendered incapable of working in consequence of their enfeebled condition on discharge. That accounts for so many remaining in the criminal ranks and returning to the old quarters so frequently.

Let any person who doubts my assertion go about 6.00 am in the morning, Sunday excepted, and watch them tottering out of the prison portals, some of them actually catching the rails for support as they pass. Now Sir, the object of all punishment should be to reclaim, but the system at present adopted has the reverse effect. If committed for two months the prisoners diet is for the first week, six ounces of bread three time a day with a pint of gruel night and morning and water only for dinner. Each pint of gruel should consist of two ounces oatmeal but the kindness of the Prison Officers is quite overpowering, for lest the prisoners might get choked, the thick portion from the bottom of the copper boilers is given to the pigs kept in a corner of the garden. I cannot say who owns them, but I have seen the Governors daughter feeding them. Respecting gaol diets, Sir James Graham, the then Secretary of State, says in his letter to the Chairman of Quarter Sessions (January 27th 1843)

“I have consulted not only the Prison Inspectors bur medical men with the greatest of eminence of long experience who fix 25.5 ounces of solid food per week as the minimum amount, which can be safely given to prisoners, without inflicting a punishment not contemplated by law and which it is cruel to inflict, namely, loss of health and strength through the inadequacy of food supplied”

On comparing this with the allowance in the Preston House of Correction, I find a deficiency in the latter of 100 ounces in the first week and of 74 ounces in the 2nd and 3rd weeks. Some of the cells are little better than shower baths in consequence of a defect in the system of supplying water. I pointed it out to the Governor but he simply told me to mind my own business. Notwithstanding, my bed was quite wet as a consequence. In speaking to a poor lad who was placed under the care of myself and another prisoner, while awaiting removal to Lancaster Lunatic Asylum, one of the Turnkeys said,

You are more knave than a fool. If I had my way I would flog you every morning”

On another occasion one warder called on another to come and help him to remove a prisoner to hospital before he died, for that he was damned near dead already, We pay one clergyman £350 per annum for giving spiritual food to the prisoners of his persuasion. He never visited me and I was glad he did not. Some of the prisoners work all night at their crank handles as well as on Sundays to save the loss to their diet. During the first week in January 1869 there was no steam in the pipes but the prisoners who had not served 14 days were deprived of their beds.

Notwithstanding, some of the prisoners caught mice and eat them and others eat there allowance of soap. I could describe much more but I fear you could not grant me greater space in your newspaper. I must therefore conclude by saying that I hope the day is not far distant when I shall see a society formed to aid and assist discharged prisoners. I further hope that our clergy will, with Ministers of every persuasion, try to remember that even prisoners have souls as well as bodies I feel convinced that a few kind words from them would have a more beneficial effect than the diabolical treatment I have endeavoured to portray. We have a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, but unhappily, criminals and paupers are excluded that benefit.(PC Jan’ 23rd 1875)


William Wilson, 5 Cunliffe St, Preston

The physical appearance of those who had fallen foul of the judicial system was revealed in an editorial comment within the Preston Chronicle newspaper in 1874. The description of those prisoners leaves little doubt that those unfortunate souls had succumbed to the lowest depths of poverty and destitution.

Unsightly Prisoners

One of the most unsightly things in Preston is the periodical, the almost daily procession along the footpaths of its chief thoroughfares, Fishergate and Church St, of wretched men, women and youths on their way to the House of Correction. Their appearance, some with black eyes, others in rags, odd ones limping on in bad shoes and some nearly without shirts, is always revolting and painful and not infrequently inconvenient and annoying. For when they come up in drove like fashion, grim visage and handcuffed, those who may be walking along the parapet must get out of the way and either look on one side or have their eyes shocked at the sight while they pass.(PC May 16th 1874)

Solitary Confinement

The treatment of offenders so vividly described by former Preston prisoner William Wilson in 1875 portrayed the cruelty and harshness of prison life at that time. However other forms of punishment were inflicted, among them the use of solitary confinement. Even young children could be subject to this form of retribution.

Death of a Boy After Solitary Confinement

In June 1872 an inquest was held before the Coroner at the House ofCorrection in Preston, concerning the death of Joseph Culshaw, a 13 year old boy who died in the hospital at the gaol. The boy had been placed in solitary confinement in May 1870, incarcerated in a cell four yards long by two and a half yards wide, when he was just 11 years old. He remained completely alone in the cell for 23 hours a day with one hour for exercise.

After enduring twenty one months of this terrible ordeal Joseph Culshaw developed breathing difficulties and complained of pain in the chest. He was transferred to the Infirmary in February 1874. His condition deteriorated with the onset of a cough and Bronchitis and he passed away on June 10th 1874. It was said in evidence that the lad was difficult to manage. He died from” Suffocative Bronchitis”. A verdict of death from natural causes was returned..

Suicide in Prison

For some, the horrors of prison life was simply too much to endure. Suicide was often seen as a way of ending such misery.

A man named James Shaw was convicted of house breaking at Preston in November 1871 and sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment. An unruly prisoner, Shaw had broken prison rules a number of times and had received punishment for these infringements on four separate occasions. In August 1872 he was discovered to have concealed a large pair of scissors, which he had been using in work tasks. He was subsequently sentenced to two days solitary confinement with a bread and water diet. Shaw could take no more and was later found dead in his cell. The unfortunate man had attached a cord made of several strings of Jute around his neck and attached it to a stay in the wall. His feet were suspended from the ground causing death by strangulation.(PC August 31st 1872)

In May 1866 a 63 year old shoemaker named Ellis Ashworth was committed to the Preston House of Correction for the offence of breaking and entering. His conviction came less than a few days after being released from a previous prison sentence. After serving only a few days of his latest sentence, Ashworth was discovered dead in his cell, following the unlocking of the doors as the prisoners went to fetch their food. He had succeeded in suspending himself by the neck with one of his braces to a hook or nail in the cell and deliberately hung himself. It was reported Ashworth had consumed a lot of alcohol after his last release from prison and had committed his latest offence while under the influence. He was later very remorseful and low in spirit at what he had done. (PC May 26th 1866)

Youth Offenders

During the 1850’s in Britain youth Reformatories and Industrial Schools were established so as to separate young offenders from the mainstream prison system. Children involved in criminality were often sent to reformatories which served both as a place of punishment with harsh discipline, as well as an educational establishment. Both boys and girls were taught skills which it was hoped, would enable them to become respectable law abiding citizens after serving their sentences.

Boys Abscond from Bleasdale Reformatory near Preston

The North Lancashire Reformatory for Boys was established in 1857 at Bleasdale, north of Preston. As with most of these institutions conditions were harsh with any misdemeanours severely punished. In February 1880 a number of boys at Bleasdale alleged they were being continuously thrashed for no apparent reason. On the evening of February 5th up to twenty boys, still dressed in reformatory clothing, escaped from the Bleasdale institution by climbing through a window. Three of the escapees returned to the reformatory almost immediately, with the rest heading off in various directions. They were probably intending to return from where they originated.

Samuel Heath 15, Arthur Pratchett 14, and a boy called David Hall headed for the bleak fells surrounding Bleasdale and spent the cold February night in the open. The following morning they carried on walking over the fells but at some stage encountered marshy ground. Arthur Pratchett stopped saying he was exhausted and could go no further. He was dressed in just trousers, shirt and stockings and complained of sore feet. The other two persuaded him to go on but he was forced to stop again. At this point Samuel Heath gave Pratchett his waistcoat and they left him on the fell, crying as they went.

Heath and Hall later encountered two farmers and told them how Arthur Pratchett had been left alone somewhere on the fell. They were both later captured 36 hours after escaping and returned to Bleasdale Reformatory. A search was mounted for Pratchett but both Heath and Hall had difficulty pinpointing the exact spot where they had left their friend.

Four months after the breakout from the reformatory the remains of Arthur Pratchett were found by a farmer, Richard Alston of Bond Slack, who discovered the badly decomposed body near to the summit of Sykes Fell. Of the twenty inmates who escaped from Bleasdale Reformatory in February 1880, all but one was recaptured. The perceived ringleaders of the escape, named as Herbert Driver, Walter Burnhill, John Holland and Samuel Taylor, all 17 years old, were later sentenced to two months imprisonment with hard labour. (PC Feb’ 14th 1880).

The Crimes of Offering for Sale Food Unfit For Human Consumption and the Fraudulent Use of Incorrect Weights and Scales

Perhaps one of the most insidious crimes perpetrated against working class people during the 19th century, was the widespread practice carried out by unscrupulous shopkeepers and provision dealers of selling food and goods on false premises. The exploitation of working people within the factories, cotton mills and coal mines was often further continued by unscrupulous traders, who deliberately defrauded these poor folk by selling them food unfit for human consumption. Another similar fraud was the use inaccurate weights and scales when selling food and goods by weight.

Many shopkeepers and traders in goods acted responsibly and greatly valued their customers, but an awful lot chose to cheat and systematically steal from the meagre wages those working folk had toiled so hard for. This practice was as prevalent in Preston as anywhere else and a few examples are listed here.

March 1865-At the Police Court Mr J Rigby, Inspector of Weights and Measures charged Thomas Gray, shopkeeper of Edmund St, Preston with having in his possession two illegal weights. One was a 1 pound weight which was both unstamped and 3 drams deficient. The other was a 2 pound with 2 drams deficient. The defendant was cautioned and ordered to pay costs. (PC Mar’ 18th 1865)

March 1865–At the Borough Police Court Mr Marriot, the Inspector of Nuisances obtained an order to destroy a quantity of beef and pork belonging to a man named John Ball, provision dealer and potted meat seller, Cotton Court, Church St, Preston, which he had seized as being unfit for human food. (PC Mar’18th 1865)

September 1865– A butcher named John Rodgett was brought before the County Magistrates charged with,

“That he, on the 11th September 1865 within the district of the Fulwood Local Board of Health, had in his possession the carcass of a certain cow which was found by the Inspector of Nuisances in the slaughterhouse of J Ayrton,Sharoe Green Lane, Fulwood, the said carcass being intended for the food of man and being unfit for such food. The defendant pleaded guilty but said the meat was intended as dog food. The Bench were of opinion that the meat was prepared for human consumption and bearing in mind the poor state of the slaughterhouse when it was inspected, a maximum fine of £10 was imposed. (PC Sep’ 23rd 1865)

January 1866-At the Police Court a charge was preferred against a youth named James Wood, of selling coal lighter in weight than what was represented, thereby defrauding his customers. Mr Rigby, Inspector of Weightsand Measures witnessed defendant deliver two bags of coal supposed to contain one hundredweight. Upon weighing them it was discovered they weighed 1 and a half pounds short of the stated amount.

The father of the defendant Richard Woods said he was responsible. He was a farmer who sold coal from a cart in Preston two or three times a week and he had dealt in coal for over twenty years. He was found guilty and fined 10 shillings plus costs and cautioned. (PC January 13th 1866)

January 1866-At the Police Court Margaret Hall, wife of Ralph Hall, A farmer of Roseacre near Kirkham, was charged with selling a quantity of butter purported to be 1 pound in weight but which on examination, was found to be an ounce and a dram deficient. The defendant denied all knowledge of the deficiency saying it must have been a simple mistake. The Bench said it was very strange the “mistake” was not in the purchasers favour. She was fined 20 shillings and costs. (PC January 13th 1866)

January 1866-At the Police Court a shopkeeper named James Taylor of Leeming St, Preston, was summoned at the instance of Mr Rigby, Inspector of Weights and Measures for having in his possession a 1 pound weight which was 3 drams deficient and 1 half pound weight which was 2 drams deficient. Taylor was fined 2 shillings and 6 pence and costs. (PC January 27th 1866)

May 1866-At the Police Court Mr Nathan Birchall, shopkeeper of Turner St Preston was summoned at the instance of Mr Rigby, Inspector of Weights and Measures, for having in his possession a pair of scales which were half an ounce against the purchaser. Mr Rigby had previously visited the defendants shop and found the same scales 2 drams against the purchaser. He cautioned him at the time with a warning to have the scales readjusted. He was fined 5 shillings and costs. (PC May 19th 1865)

October 1866James Holt a coal dealer of Fulwood was charged by Superintendent Green with having two deficient weights in his possession. Mr Green stated he visited the defendants shop on September 8th 1866 and found two 56 pound weights both unstamped. One was 7 pounds against the purchaser and the other 4 pounds against. A fine of 5 shillings and costs was imposed. (PC October 6th 1866)

February 1867-A provision dealer of Spring St (Bow Lane), Preston, named Stephen Cork was charged by Mr Rigby, Inspector of Weights and Measures, with having in his possession and using for the purpose of weighing tea, butter, Sugar, etc, a quarter pound weight which was 2 drams deficient. The defendant said he lost the correct weight and was using the current one until he got a proper replacement. Mr Cork was fined 2 shillings and six pence. (PC Feb’ 2nd 1867)

February 1867John Allsup of Ribbleton Lane. Preston was charged with using an unjust pair of scales in the weighing of coal. They were discovered to be 1 pound against the purchaser. Mr Allsup was fined 2 shillings and six pence. (PC Feb 2nd 1867)

February 1867John Turner a confectioner of Grimsargh was charged by Superintendant Green before the County Magistrates, with having two light weights in his possession. Mr Green visited the defendants shop and found a 2 ounce weight which was 3 drams deficient and a 1 ounce weight which was 3 drams deficient. He was fined 2 shillings and six pence and costs. (PC Feb’ 16th 1867)

February 1867- At the Police Court, William Wharton was charged by MrRigby,Inspector of Weights and Measures, with having in his possession and using, a pair of unjust scales. The evidence was conclusive. Mr Wharton was fined 2 shillings and six pence and costs. (PC Feb’ 16th 1867)

March 1867Thomas Duckworth a coal dealer of Longridge appeared at the County Police Court after being summoned for using a 56 pound weight which was 1 and a half pounds against the purchaser. The case was fully proved and as the defendant had been previously fined several times before for similar offences, he was ordered to pay a fine of £1 plus costs. (PC March 30th 1867)

December 1868– James Lee a potato dealer of North Rd, Preston, was charged by Mr Rigby, Inspector of Weights and Measures with having a pair of scales an ounce and a half against the purchaser. He was fined 2 shillings and sixpence and costs (PC Dec 5th 1868)

February 1869Henry Goodier of Friargate was charged with offering for sale on January 30th 1869, a quantity of diseased meat. The following Monday an order was obtained by the Magistrates to destroy the meat. Evidence was called to show the meat was diseased and that Goodier offered it for sale. He was fined 10 shillings and costs. (PC February 20th 1869)

Preston Man Punished by Being Wrongly Incarcerated in a Lunatic Asylum

Another particularly distressing form of punishment was sometimes directed towards ordinary people who often displayed individual traits, or unusual habits, which today would probably be defined as being someone with a personality disorder, or other similar conditions. During the 19th Century such conditions were misunderstood and often attracted a hostile response from a society that could be cruel and callous.

It was not uncommon for people who did not adhere to societal norms, or who displayed what was considered strange behaviour to be incarcerated, sometimes for life, in institutions knows as Lunatic Asylums. These foreboding institutions which struck fear into much of the general population, were sometimes used as a convenience to lock away different, but otherwise healthy individuals, with no mental illness.

One such distressing example of this form of punishment occurred in Preston in 1871 to a man named William Stansfield.

William Stansfield was a 40 year old man who in 1871 lived in St Pauls Square, Preston. For 15 years he had been employed as a general labourer at Messrs Irvin and Sellers, Shuttle makers of Fletcher Rd. Though quiet and a little eccentric William was nevertheless a hardworking, honest, inoffensive man who was highly regarded by everyone. Religious by nature and a frequent worshipper at one of the local Preston Wesleyan Chapels, Williams views on life were at times somewhat unorthodox, but in no way insulting to others.

During the early months of 1871 he expressed an interest in getting married, while at the same time began socialising with a number of “fortune tellers” who were active in various parts of Preston. It was also at this time that William Stansfield began soliciting an unmarried woman of considerable social standing in the entire district. He even offered her marriage proposals, though he hardly knew the lady. She began to receive letters from him and even found him attending the same church services as herself.

Then in a dramatic development, a cab with several men in it arrived one day at the works of Messrs Irvin and Sellers asking for William Stansfield. As he made his way over to the two men, he was grabbed, forcibly placed in the cab and driven away without any explanation to anyone. After several days it was revealed that William had been incarcerated in Lancaster Asylum. His horrified workmates insisted that William, although a peculiar man, was as sane on the day he was forcibly seized as he had ever been and that a simple caution would have been sufficient to curb his intrusiveness with the lady. Even his employers said they would be happy to see him return to work again.

As William Stansfield’s incarceration continued for weeks then months, it became increasingly clear that a deliberate policy of forced imprisonment on the pretext of insanity, had been adopted against the poor man. Faced with this apparent injustice and the prospect of spending the rest of his days in a lunatic asylum, Stansfield’s friends and workmates decided to act. In early March 1872 almost six months after his initial detention, a group established to secure the release of Mr Stansfield first met at the Albert Inn, Ribbleton Lane,Preston. Mr Littlefair the Chair of the group delivered a long and passionate speech condemning the decision to remove William to the asylum. A demand was also made for a full reimbursement of monies lost while he had been denied his liberty. A Mr Marginson also addressed the meeting , describing how he had visited Stansfield in Lancaster Asylum and could personally vouch for his sanity. He also called for an intervention from the Mayor along with a public meeting and a plea to the Home Secretary. Another speaker suggested a panel of Doctors be selected to sit on the question. Finally a proposal was adopted,

“That this meeting is of opinion that William Stansfield has been most unwarrantable and unlawfully dragged from his work and peaceful abode and placed in the asylum under the pretence of insanity ,not declared by the medical practitioner employed by this Union and that it is our duty to do all we can to further his immediate release.”

As the campaign to free William Stansfield gathered momentum a public meeting was held on 13th March 1872 at the Temperance Hall, North Rd. Accusations of a clear breach of procedure were levelled at both the Medical Officer and Relieving Officer, as well as a complete failure to assess the prisoners true medical state accurately. The meeting also heard how in previous similar cases to the present one, a caution from the Magistrates had usually been sufficient to resolve the issue, or if that option failed, a temporary confinement to the workhouse. All speakers agreed that a grave travesty of justice had occurred to a man whose peculiarities had been misjudged as that of a person of an unsound mind.

The following week the Preston Board of Guardians had their usual meeting with the topic of William Stansfield dominating the agenda. Dr Spencer maintained that all the procedures had been correctly followed in the case of Mr Stansfield, who he alleged, had caused great inconvenience and distress to the Lady in question. However, said Dr Spencer, he had recently visited the patient at Lancaster Asylum and had noticed a marked improvement in the man’s mental state. After a short discussion the Chairman of the Board of Guardians moved the following resolution,

“That on the understanding that the Brother of William Stansfield is prepared to give an undertaking for his proper care and maintenance, the Clerk be instructed to write to the authorities of the County Asylum of Lancaster, stating that the Board of Guardians consent to his discharge”.

William Stansfield was freed with his six months ordeal finally over. (PC Sep’ 16th 1871. Mar’2nd, 16th, & 23rd 1872)

%d bloggers like this: