John Howard

John Howard

John Howard, the son of a successful businessman, was born in Hackney, London, on 2nd September, 1726. His mother died soon after his birth and so John was sent away to boarding school in Hertford.

When he was sixteen John Howard's father died leaving him enough money to live a life of leisure. Howard spent his time travelling around the world. In 1756 the ship he was on was captured by the French. After spending time in a French prison, Howard was eventually released. Howard was shocked by the condition of dungeon in which he was imprisoned and when he arrived back in England he sent a report to the authorities detailing the sufferings of his fellow prisoners.

On 25th April 1758 John Howard married Henrietta Leeds. The marriage was successful and over the next couple of years Howard spent his time erecting high-quality cottages for his estate workers and their families. Howard was devastated when his wife died giving birth to their first child in 1765.

Howard returned to travelling the world but while in Naples in 1770 he had a religious experience which resulted in him making a promise to God that he would do whatever was required of him. Howard now became a devout Congregationalist. As a result of the Test Act passed in 1673, Howard was not allowed to hold civil or military office. However, when he was invited in February 1773, to become High Sheriff of Bedford, he accepted the post as he saw it as a way to serve God.

One of Howard's responsibilities as High Sheriff was to inspect the county prison. He was appalled by what he found at Bedford Gaol. At first Howard believed that the suffering of the prisoners was largely being caused by the system where the gaoler received money from the prisoner for his board and lodging. Howard suggested to Bedford justices that the gaoler should be paid a salary. The justices were unwilling to increase the cost of looking after prisoners and replied that the whole country used the same system.

Howard decided to carry out a tour of neighbouring prisons to see if this was the case. He discovered that all the prisons he visited were as bad if not worse that Bedford Gaol. Over the next three years travelled over 10,000 miles collecting information about the conditions in prisons. On 4th March 1774 he gave some of the evidence that he had collected to the House of Commons.

As a result of the testimony that John Howard provided, Parliament passed the 1774 Gaol Act. The terms of this legislation abolished gaolers' fees and suggested ways for improving the sanitary state of prisons and the better preservation of the health of the prisoners. Although Howard had copies of these acts printed and sent to every prison in England, the justices and the gaolers tended to ignore these new measures.

In 1775 Howard began a tour of foreign prisons. Over the next few years he visited prisons in France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Switzerland, Malta, Asia Minor and Turkey. Although most of these prisons were as bad as those in England, Howard did find one that was far superior, Maison de Force in Ghent. He now used Maison de Force as an example of what other British prisons should be like. When Howard returned to England he began a second tour of its prisons to see if the reforms of the 1774 Gaol Act were being implemented.

In 1777 Howard published the result of his investigations, The State of Prisons in England and Wales, with an Account of some Foreign Prisons. The contents of Howard's book was so shocking that in some countries, such as France, the authorities refused to allow it to be published. Howard continued to inspect prisons and in March 1787 he completed his fourth tour of those in England. This was followed by the publication of An Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe and Additional Remarks on the Present State of Prisons in Great Britain and Ireland.

In 1789 Howard set out once again to tour foreign prisons. He visited Holland and Germany and by December was in Russia. John Howard contracted typhus while visiting a military Russian hospital at Kherston and died on 20th January, 1790.

Primary Sources

(1) John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777)

When I was Sheriff of the county of Bedford, and the circumstances which excited me to activity in their behalf was the seeing, some - who by the verdict of juries were declared not guilty; some on whom the Grand Jury did not find such an appearance of guilt as subjected them to trial; and some - whose prosecutors did not appear against them; after having been confined for months; dragged back to gaol and locked up again till they should pay sundry fees to the gaoler, the clerk of assize, etc.

(2) John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777)

Food: Many criminals are half starved: some come out almost famished, scarce able to move, and for weeks incapable of any labour.

Bedding: In many gaols, and in most bridewells, there is no allowance of bedding or straw for prisoners to sleep on. Some lie upon rags, others upon the bare floor.

Use of Irons: Loading prisoners with heavy irons which make their walking, and even lying down to sleep, difficult and painful, is another custom which I cannot but condemn. Even the women do not escape this severity.

The Insane: It some few gaols are confined idiots and lunatics. Where these are not kept separate, they distract and terrify other prisoners.

(3) John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777)

Knaresboro Prison: Earth floor: no fire; very offensive; a common sewer from the town running through it uncovered. I was informed that an officer, confined here some years since, took in with him a dog to defend him from vermin; but the dog was soon destroyed and the prisoner's face much disfigured.

Plymouth Gaol: Three rooms for felons, etc., and two rooms over them for debtors. One of the former, the clink, 15 feet by 8 feet 3 inches and about 6 feet high, with a wicket in the door 7 inches by 5 to admit light and air. To this, as I was informed, three men, who were confined near two months under sentence for transportation, came by turns for breath.

(4) John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777)

When a gentleman, particularly a magistrate, has come with an intention to visit the gaol, the keeper has pretended the utmost willingness to accompany him, but at the same time has artfully dropped a hint that he fears there may be some danger in it, as he is apprehensive that the fever has made its appearance among them. The visitor, alarmed, returns thanks for the kind caution, and instantly leaves the prison. I have always insisted on the necessity of a close inspection; and have generally found the prison very dirty, indeed, and out of order, but no fever.

(5) Edmund Burke, speech in Bristol (1780)

John Howard has visited all Europe - not to survey the sumptuousness of palaces, or the stateliness of temples; or to make accurate measurements of the remains of ancient grandeur, to form a scale of the curiosity of modern art; not to collect medals or collate manuscripts - but to dive into the depths of dungeons and plunge to the infection of hospitals; to survey the mansions of sorrow and pain; to take the gauge and measure of misery, depression and contempt; to remember the forgotten, to attend to the neglected, to visit the forsaken, and compare and collate the miseries of all men in all countries. His plan is original; and it is full of genius as it is of humanity.