The University of Southampton

HIST2102 Discipline and Punish: Prisons and Prisoners in England 1775 - 1898

Module Overview

‘Prisons don’t work’ exclaimed author Will Self to the BBC in 2011 reflecting significant public concerns regarding issues such as cost, reoffending and overcrowding through to the perception of ‘gilded lifestyles’ led by inmates. In this module we will explore the period of English history in which the modern prison system emerged and consider the reasons behind this development. Set against a background of social tensions, rising crime rates and dissatisfaction with the alternative punishments such as execution and transportation we will begin our study in the late eighteenth century when the concept of the prison as a form of punishment (as opposed to purely holding criminals pre- and post-trial) was a new one in England. We will look at the work of contemporaries who identified the need to develop the role of the prison as a site of both discipline and reformation for criminals and how their influence led to the penitentiary emerging through the nineteenth century as the primary mode of punishment. We will question the motivations behind the emergence of the prison: was this driven by humanitarianism and an emphasis on the ability to reform or was the incarceration of criminals a form of social control? The spate of prison building and rebuilding across the nineteenth century saw the establishment of over 90 new establishments and we will be researching the planning and organisation of these structures with case studies such as Millbank and Pentonville (London), Bristol and Reading. From surveys of individual institutions we can uncover the regimes that were in place and how the makeup of prison populations related to social problems. We will explore the tensions that existed between prisoners, prison authorities and the government across the nineteenth century and how these ultimately led to the Prisons Act in 1898 taking all prisons out of private ownership and into central government’s control. You will have the opportunity to research one prison of your choice in detail as the basis for your essay and to consider how it evolved in light of the wider debates and reforms across our period. Alongside the wider context of prison reforms we will undertake a close examination of the treatment of particular groups of criminals and the experiences of individual criminals. We will look at groups such as women, children and the insane to consider how philanthropic and medical developments influenced attitudes across the nineteenth century and the role played by particular individual reformers including Elizabeth Fry, Mary Carpenter and Joshua Jebb. In particular debates surrounding the establishment of specific institutions to house these ‘minority’ groups (e.g., Holloway, Parkhurst and Broadmoor) will be considered. We will then move to consider the experiences of the prisoners themselves through their surviving memoirs, letters and biographies and by the use of literature (e.g., Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1860)). The module asks you to reflect critically on debates surrounding the intentions of modern forms of punishment by examining their historical roots. We will demonstrate how current debates surrounding the ‘effectiveness’ or ‘success’ of imprisonment are necessarily coloured by the motives of reformers across the long nineteenth century in England.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

• Introduce you to a variety of sources for researching the history of prisons from institutional archives to government reports and official publications, newspapers, memoirs and fictional literature to art and architecture; • Expand your knowledge and understanding of the specific political, social and cultural conditions in which discussions about the treatment of criminals and the need for reform of prisons took place; • Enable you to think critically about the motivations for the reform of the prison system and the impact of the legacy of Victorian changes on the justice system today; • Equip you to develop your own appropriate methodological and critical approaches to the analysis of sources (textual, visual and material) on a specific penitentiary of your choice and to develop and pursue your own research interests; • Develop your capabilities in research with on-line and microfilmed primary source collections.

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • The social and political context in England between the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries in which the need for a changing role of the prison was recognised, debated and undertaken;
  • The role played by different kinds of author and different forms of media in shaping contemporary perceptions of criminals and the purposes of punishment;
  • The different ways in which scholars have interpreted the significance of changes to the prison system in the nineteenth century;
  • The contemporary resonance of the themes of the module.
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Identify (through the use of electronic bibliographical searches) and read primary and secondary materials in a range of formats including microfilm and online;
  • Communicate effectively in group discussions, including in the role of presenter;
  • Work independently and as part of a team to identify and solve problems;
  • Undertake individual research and present findings coherently;
  • Develop your time management skills in planning and completing tasks set.
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Identify the political, economic and moral influences that shaped opinions about the punishment of criminals during our period;
  • Analyse critically a variety of textual, visual and material sources and comment upon their relevance to the historical study of prisons and prisoners;
  • Engage with seminal and recent historiographical and philosophical texts on the punishment and reform of prisoners;
  • Participate constructively in group discussion, presenting your case by drawing on your reading, knowledge and understanding.


Topics are likely to include: • The cruel and corrupt early modern prison? • A need for reform: John Howard and the State of the Prisons (1775) • From Prisons to Penitentiaries • Labour and Surveillance: Bentham’s Panopticon • Experiments in Architecture and planning: Millbank and Pentonville • The ‘separate system’ of discipline • Illness and insanity in prisons • Punishing the ‘fairer sex’: Women prisoners and prisons • The problem of juvenile offenders: delinquency and the Parkhurst experiment • The experience of the prisoner: memoirs • Prisons in literature • The Victorian legacy and the modern institution

Special Features

This module, like all of the 15 credit History modules offered to second year students, will be research led and it will focus heavily on primary sources. You will study an individual source in depth each week and will be expected to find and consult a range of your own sources for your case-study essay. As such, this module will provide you with a sound preparation for the source- based work undertaken in year 3 during the Special Subject and the dissertation.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching activities include: • Introductory lectures which may include some group work/participation; • Seminars focusing on the detailed reading and analysis of primary sources, whether texts, images or objects. Learning activities include: • In depth analysis of primary sources; • Preparatory reading and individual study; • Individual participation in seminars, group work and short presentations on seminar themes.

Completion of assessment task50
Preparation for scheduled sessions50
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

D. Rothman and N. Morris, eds (1995). The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society. 

L. Zedner (1994). Women, Crime and Custody in Victorian England. 

P. Priestley (1999). Victorian Prison Lives: English Prison Biography 1830-1914. 

J. Sim (1990). Medical Power in Prisons: the Prison Medical Service in England, 1774-1989. 

M. Ignatieff (1978). A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution 1750-1850. 

U. R. Q. Henriques (1972). The Rise and Decline of the ‘Separate System’ of Prison Discipline. Past and Present. ,54 , pp. 61-93.

F. Lauterback and J. Alber, eds (2009). Stones of Law, Bricks of Shame: Narrating Imprisonment in the Victorian Age. 

M. Higgs (2007). Prison Life in Victorian England. 

M. Foucault (1977). Discipline and Punish. 

D. Garland (1985). Punishment and Welfare: A History of Penal Strategies. 

N. Davie (2010). ’Business as Usual?’ Britain’s First Women’s Convict Prison Brixton 1853-1869. Crimes and Misdemeanours. ,4 , pp. 37-52.

D. Melossi and M. Pavarini (1981). The Prison and the Factory: Origins of the Penitentiary System. 

A. Brodie, J. Croom, J. O. Davies, eds (2002). English Prisons: An Architectural History. 


Assessment Strategy

The links between assessment methods and learning outcome are as follows: The weekly seminars will provide you with a forum to discuss the primary sources and relate them to the historical context and the historiography. They will also allow for the development of interpersonal skills; through the use of class presentations you will be able to develop your knowledge and understanding of particular subject areas and to enhance your oral communication skills. The essay tests your engagement with the themes of the module pursued through deeper and more independent research than involved in preparing for seminars, as well as your skills of effective argumentation. The exam asks you to present cogent analysis in time-pressured conditions of sources seen in lectures and seminars, and to show your deeper understanding of the themes of the module by constructing an argument-led essay. In addition, the source-based focus of the essay and the exam will prepare you for the Special Subject and Dissertation in the third year.


MethodPercentage contribution
Case study  (2000 words) 50%
Examination  (2 hours) 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Coursework 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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