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Discipline and disorder in English prisons : aspects of policy and resistance 1840-1920

Brown, Alyson


Alyson Brown


Keith Nield


This thesis is an historical examination of English prisons from 1840 to 1920 which approaches the complexity of this institution from the perspective of the disturbances which occurred within it. The primary aim is not to analyse the form and extent of prison disturbances during this period, although this will be considered, but rather to concentrate upon the origins, causes and effects of these disturbances. English prison disturbances are examined on several inter-linking levels with regard to the structure, policy and relationships within the prison and the ways in which these interacted and produced disorder. Analysis of the separate categories of prisoners with regard to gender, age, physical or mental disability will be limited as this thesis is concerned with the prisoner largely in terms of position and status.

The reason for examining the prison from the perspective of its internal disturbances is that they often revealed a great deal about the policies, problems and coercive nature of the institution. Indeed it has been asserted that power "unexercised is seldom as visible as power which is challenged."! Prison discipline was such an important environmental determinant that much of this thesis also entails consideration of its functions and influence. It is clear that the problem of maintaining discipline and order on a daily basis in prison was never far removed from the problem of disorder.'

The majority of offences were minor infringements of the prison rules and regulations but these were often committed in large numbers. In the second half of the nineteenth century the number of prison offences committed annually in each of the large public works prisons in England often amounted to over two thousand. For example, between the years 1865 and 1875 the annual total of prison offences committed in Portland Convict Prison fell below two thousand in only one year and was over four thousand in four years. The daily average number of convicts in Portland Prison during this period remained fairly stable and was usually between 1550 and 1575. The task of detecting, processing and adjudicating on these offences was a major administrative undertaking. The large number of minor offences that were punished in English prisons during this period must also be understood in the context of a large degree of discretion which operated within the prison system. For instance, individual prisons varied with regard to the effectiveness of the supervision and the priority placed upon punishment in the operation of discipline by the prison administrators. These were important factors in determining the detection, punishment and recording of prison offences.

This thesis considers, therefore, the broad range of prison disturbances because of the significance that could be attached to even the smallest actions and the problems these posed for prison management. One important factor to note, however, is that in many cases the most detailed, extensive and valuable evidence available concerns the larger-scale, combined disturbances which more directly and seriously threatened the discipline and order of the prisons. These were also the forms of prison disturbance which were the most vigorously put down. Where the evidence has been particularly useful in examining the origins and causes of prison disorder the large disturbances have been concentrated upon. Hence chapter three examines the causes and consequences of a major riot in Chatham Convict Prisons in 1861 in which over 800 convicts became involved.

The fundamental themes of this thesis constitute an analysis of the facets of the prison which caused disorder not only during the historical point at which they are examined here but into the late twentieth century. The extreme monotony of prison regimes, legitimacy problems and the unpredictability of inmate subcultures are all elements which still affect the stability of English prisons. A tendency of prison authorities to rely on deterrence in the face of internal problems or public criticism and an in built structural resistance to change in an institution that often composes the last resort in dealing with social problems also remains. The activities of political interest groups which break the law have been among the most contentious of the social problems which have been reflected in the prison.


Brown, A. (1998). Discipline and disorder in English prisons : aspects of policy and resistance 1840-1920. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Publication Date Apr 1, 1998
Deposit Date Feb 24, 2014
Publicly Available Date Feb 23, 2023
Keywords History
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Economic and Social History, The University of Hull


Thesis (13.3 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 1998 Brown, Alyson. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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