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Identity Statement

Reference code(s): ACC/3648
Held at: London Metropolitan Archives
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Full title: PENITENTIARY ACT, 1779
Date(s): 1779-1780
Level of description: Collection
Extent: 0.08 linear metres
Name of creator(s): Howard | John | 1726?-1790 | philanthropist and penal reformer
Blackstone | Sir | William | 1723-1780 | Knight | legal writer and judge
Eden | Sir | William | 1st Baronet | 1744-1814 | penal reformer and diplomatist
Fothergill | John | 1712-1780 | physician and naturalist
Whatley | George | fl 1780 | Treasurer of the Foundling Hospital


Administrative/Biographical history:

John Howard, prison reformer and author of The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with Preliminary Observations, and an Account of some Foreign Prisons, Sir William Blackstone, the High Court judge, and William Eden, member of Parliament and author of Principles of Penal Law, were responsible for the 1779 Penitentiary Act "to explain and amend the Laws relating to the Transportation, Imprisonment, and other Punishment of certain offenders ---" (19 Geo. III, c.74). As an alternative to transportation this provided for the building of two penitentiaries, one for males and one for females, where "solitary Imprisonment, accompanied by well regulated labour, and religious Instruction" "might be the means, under Providence, not only of deterring others from the Commission of the like Crimes, but also of reforming the Individuals, and inuring them to Habits of Industry".

The three supervisors appointed to arrange for the purchase of a site and the erection of the penitentiaries were John Howard, Dr John Fothergill, physician and botanist, and George Whatley, Treasurer of the Foundling Hospital. Despite their efforts, the supervisors failed to find a site acceptable to the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the judges, and the Lord Mayor of London. John Fothergill died in December 1780 and John Howard shortly afterwards resigned. Three new supervisors were appointed to join George Whatley. Although they agreed on a site and on a plan for a penitentiary, no prison was ever built.

In 1784 the Government obtained a new Transportation Act. The Gilbert Acts of 1782 and 1784 allowed local justices to build houses of correction. Local Prison Acts also gave counties the powers to build new prisons. Ironically the Middlesex House of Correction was built between 1788 and 1794 at Cold Bath Fields, Clerkenwell, in the vicinity of the site originally preferred by the Penitentiary Act supervisors, close to New River Head and between Grays Inn Road and Bagnigge Wells Road.


Scope and content/abstract:

Records of the prison Supervisors comprising: "Act of Parliament to explain and amend the Laws relating to the Transportation, Imprisonment, and other Punishment, of certain offenders, authorising building of two penitentiaries", 1779; order by King appointing John Howard, George Whatley and Dr John Fothergill Supervisors of the penitentiaries to be erected under above Act, 1779; minutes of meetings of the Supervisors to discuss possible sites near London and a plan for the male penitentiary, 1779; draft letter from George Whatley to John Howard, acknowledging receipt of letter, overestimate of savings expected from convicts' labour, and difficulties ahead, 1780; memorial by Supervisors recommending site between Grays Inn Road and Bagnigge Wells Road read out at meeting with Lord Chancellor, Speaker, Judges and Lord Mayor, 1780; proposal by John Howard and John Fothergill for a new site for the Penitentiary near the White Conduit, marked on a map now missing, 1780.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

One volume and 5 documents arranged chronologically.

Conditions governing access:

Available for general access.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Copyright: City of London.

Finding aids:

Please see online catalogues at:

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

The documents were purchased by the Greater London Record Office (now the London Metropolitan Archives) at a Sotheby's sale LN5749 "Trumpet" on 18 December 1995 (Lot 474). ACC/3648.

Allied Materials

Related material:

Related holdings include the Middlesex Sessions records, the archives of the Foundling Hospital (A/FH) and papers relating to Sir William Blackstone's marriage settlement and will (Acc/1360/580-592).

Publication note:

For further information see Imprisonment in England and Wales. A Concise History by Christopher Harding, Bill Hines, Richard Ireland and Philip Rawlings, 1985 (LMA Library reference 21.31 HAR).

Description Notes

Archivist's note:

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
April to June 2009

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