The Perfect Day to go to Prison
It’s raining here in Symi, Greece today, making it the perfect day to go to prison. I’m not referring to being stuck indoors, because that’s me most days, positioned at my PC happily writing another chapter. I’m talking about research, and, in particular, research into Victorian prisons.
Part three of the new Larkspur Mystery series, ‘Agents of the Truth’, involves a prison. At least, part of the story does. To create authenticity in my imagined Clearwater world of late 1800s Britain, I make sure I do my research, so my world is as authentic as I can make it. At the moment, I am looking into Victorian prisons, and so far, have found two invaluable recourses I want to share with you.
Dictionary of Victorian London
I have a couple of sites permanently bookmarked on my toolbar. One of them is the Dictionary of Victorian London, a gem of a site created by Lee Jackson. There is an entire section there on Prisons, and, as with the rest of the site, this contains authentic reports and first-hand accounts of the subjects written at the time. Sometimes these are earlier than my period, but still in the Victorian era, and it is easy to imagine that not much changed between, say, 1840 and 1890.
I still double-check facts, though, in case changes had been made, and that’s a useful tip for anyone starting out on historical research. Always cross-reference. Yesterday, for example, I thought I’d found the prison in which to base my scenes. Coldbath Prison sounded perfect. I loved the name apart from anything else and decided to use that one. Reading further, though, revealed that although the prison in Clerkenwell was extended in 1850, it closed in 1885, and was transferred to the Post Office in 1889. Today, it is the site occupied by the Mount Pleasant sorting office, and I’ve passed it many times over the years without realising it was once a notorious prison.
So, I had to throw Coldbath out with the bathwater and find somewhere else. The Dictionary of Victorian London came in handy again, and there, I found The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 – Three Years of Penal Servitude. I’d read some of James Greenwood’s writing before, ‘A Night in a Workhouse’, which was published in the 1860s, was his account of spending a night on the casual word of Lambeth workhouse. That article informed a couple of chapters in ‘Banyak & Fecks’, where Silas, at his lowest, spends a night in the casual ward of the Hackney workhouse. (It’s interesting for me to note that while Silas was doing that, in November 1884, two characters from the new Larkspur series, Dalston Blaze and Joe Tanner, were living in the general population in the same workhouse. They would have been 12 and 13 then and would have only just met, but that’s another story.)
The James Greenwood piece takes the reader from the court to Newgate, where the author was held, and then later, to Millbank prison and on, later still, to Pentonville and Portland prisons. They are very detailed accounts, and those details have been invaluable when writing a chapter from a prisoner’s point of view. I decided to use Millbank prison for my setting. Millbank used to stand where the Tate Gallery is now positioned, in London, and again, I have been to the site many times without realising there was once a prison there.
Prison History Org
The second site I found was Prison History, a resource for anyone interested in the history of the British prison system. There’s a page about 19th-century prisons, and linked to that, lists of prisons, their details and even their records. The site includes ‘your stories’, which are first-hand accounts from prisoners and visitors both historic and modern. While surfing the site, I found the mention of a book that sounded exactly what I was looking for. A ‘Guide to the Criminal Prisons of Nineteenth-Century England’, by Rosalind Crone, Lesley Hoskins and Rebecca Preston. You can find this for sale online, in hardback, and it’s not cheap. However, if you take the survey at Prison History, you can then email for a free PDF download. This is exactly what I did, mainly because I wanted to thank the site for their resource, but also because I wanted the book. I had it downloaded within the hour and shall delve into it as soon as I have posted this.
Agents of the Truth
There are, of course, many other resources available if you’re researching life in the Victorian Prison. I only highlight these two because they are the ones I am currently working with. But why, you may ask? How does a prison feature in ‘Agents of the truth’?
Well, I can’t tell you too much, but what I can say is, the villain of the piece has spent time in prison, and I wanted to get inside his mind. I wanted to know what suffering he would have endured, and how he might have been treated. As I read through some of the above-mentioned articles and accounts, it occurred to me how similar prison life was to workhouse life. Except, at the workhouse, a person could choose to leave, and was not there as a punishment, even though many workhouses treated their inmates as criminals. The picking apart of oakum, the limited diet, the regimes, all were very similar, depending on what workhouse you were in.
Reading the first-hand accounts of life in a Victorian prison, it’s not difficult to imaging the hardships, the loneliness and the despair, and those are the things that are driving my evil character to do what he does. I’ve done it this way so that the reader might find some sympathy with him because even the evilest villains should spark some sympathy to make them a more rounded and believable character. Not too much sympathy, though, not considering what he is about to do.
On which note, I must get back to Millbank prison in October 1890, and let my villain loose in London…
Remember to catch up with the latest book on my Wednesday WIP blog.
Photos from wikiwand.com/Milbank Prison