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Victorian Crime and Punishment

By the beginning of the Victorian era, the county gaol at Oxford had been transformed from a ramshackle, unsanitary enterprise into a rigorous and austere modern institution. The rowdy, disorderly Georgian gaol was replaced with a regimented, eerily quiet Victorian version.

At Oxford, the magistrates sought to crush what was left of the old gaol culture of graft and gambling with a regime of hard fare, hard beds and hard labour. The prisoner’s every movement was supervised and his time controlled down to the very minute.

Between 1780 and 1850, crime rates continued to rise and public fear of crime was running high. The authorities opted for more reform, and as a result, imprisoned more people and made prison life harsher and more degrading.

The prison population rose steeply, and more prisons had to be built to cope with the numbers. Oxford Prison was greatly expanded in the mid-19th century. New wings were added so that prisoners could be classified according to age and gender and kept in individual cells. A separate women’s prison was built before 1851, and then a large new cellblock, now known as ‘A’ Wing. Provision for hard labour was increased with the addition of treadwheels and a capstan for pumping water.

The 1877 Prisons Act introduced a nationalised prison system with back-breaking and demoralising work as its central plank. In the early 19th century, emphasis on work was a means of reforming the convict’s soul, but after fears of prisons becoming too soft, soul-destroying hard labour was introduced to act as a deterrent to crime.

Oxford Castle & Prison had five key hard labour punishments for their prisoners, these punishments weren’t uncommon in many other prisons:

  • The Treadwheel
    The treadwheel was a large cylinder with steps around its circumference. The prisoner would stand in a stall facing the outside of the wheel and tred on the steps. This action caused the wheel to turn, forcing the prisoner to keep walking on the spot whilst getting nowhere. The average number of steps a prisoner would make was 57,000 a day.
  • The Shot Drill
    For the Shot Drill exercise, the prisoner would have to pick up a cannonball, lift it to their chest and carry it to the far end of the yard and put it down. This process was then repeated all day.
  • Oakum-Picking
    Prisoners would have to untwist old tar-covered ropes from ships to separate the fibres. These fibres were then used to patch cracks in the hull of ships and fill prison mattresses. The process of oakum-picking would make the hands of the prisoners’ cramp and bleed and they would have to do this for long periods of time.
  • The Crank Handle
    The Crank was a mechanical handle which prisoners were forced to turn thousands of times, for absolutely no reason. The slang term ‘Screw’ for a prison officer has its origin in the fact that officers were able to tighten the mechanism that makes the prisoners work harder.
  • The Capstan
    The Capstan was an Oxford Castle speciality and there is still visible evidence at the base of St George’s Tower. Usually, the capstan was used to draw up the anchor on ships, however, the capstan at Oxford Prison was used to pump water from the castle millstream into a water-tank on an upper floor of the tower. This was then used to provide water throughout the prison, notably for the laundry. The capstan consisted of a large wheel with eight spokes, of which 16 men would be strapped to the spokes 2 by 2.

The aim of Victorian hard labour in the prison regime was to crush the spirit of inmates and force them to mend their ways. Prisoners were kept in silence during work and the tasks were tedious and often useless. Hard labour was formally abolished in 1948.

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