In transcribing the following passage from the online version I have expanded abbreviations and added paragraphing, subtitles, links, and illustrations. The illuminated initial letter with which the article begins comes from the original, though I have added red to it. — George P. Landow

Between 1831 and 1853 there were loud complaints of undue severity at the Borough Gaol, under the administration of Lieut. Austin, who sras appointed governor in the first named year. “Mr. Austin's methods," says the historian of the Corporation,“ were distinctly punitive and not reformatory. They included the employment of the 'crank'—that is, the turning of a weighted wheel, capable of being tightened to increased pressure by a brake—as a customary form of labour; and the use of the strait waistcoat, the leathern collar, strapping to the cell wall, extremely low diet, and actual prohibition of food, and douches of cold water, as methods of punishment for prison offences. Several attempts at suicide occurred; some persons actually committed suicide; and in one case, that of a hoy named Andrews, who hanged himself after having been subjected to specially severe treatment, public attention was attracted to the state of the prison.” As a result of the inquest on the boy Andrews, a public meeting was held and a deputation appointed to wait upon Lord Palmerston, asking for a public enquiry as to the alleged cruelties practised at the gaol. In response to the prayer of the inhabitants a Royal Commission of Enquiry was appointed, consisting of Mr. Welsby, Recorder of Chester; Mr. Perry, an inspector of prisons; and Mr. Baly, medical superintendent of Millltank prison.

The Old Police Court, Moor Street. (From an engraving in the Illustrated Midland News), 1870.

The Enquiry was opened on the 29th of August, 1853, and lasted thirteen days, and brought to light many instances of the most revolting cruelty, in which not only the governor of the gaol, but nearly all the other officials were implicated, the prison chaplain being almost the only exception. His kindness to the prisoners, during this period of ruthless severity, shines out as a ray of sunshine in the record of this black chapter of our local history. The report of the Commissioners aroused the utmost indigration. It contained stories which, as the Times said, “would have been thought exaggerations if found in one of Mr. Dickens’s books,” and revealed the fact that “ Birmingham gaol was in secret the scene of doings which literally filled the public with horror.” As a result of the Enquiry, a government prosecution was instituted against Lieut. Austin, the governor, and Mr. Blout, the surgeon of the gaol, at Warwick Assizes in August, 1853. The prosecution failed, however, on the direct charges of cruelty; but they were further indicted for having neglected to make entries of punishment in the prison books, and on this count Austin was, after considerable delay, sentenced to three months’ imprisonment, Blout being not called up for punishment.

Related material


Dent, Robert K. The Making of Birmingham: Being a History of the Rise & Growth of the Midland Metropolis. Birmingham: J. L. Allday, 1894. Birmingham: Hall and English, 1886. 398-403. HathiTrust online version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 4 October 2022.

Last modified 14 October 2022