Pentonville Prison

View of Pentonville Prison. Illustrated London News 2 (7 January 1843): 1. Scanned image, text, and commentary by Philip V. Allingham

On the 13th of August, 1842, The Illustrated London News printed a picture of and a brief story about the new, model prison at Pentonville, near Holloway, Middlesex, mentioning a recent parliamentary bill sponsored by Sir James Graham and Mr. Manners Sutton to open the recently constructed edifice for the reception of convicts. The preamble to the bill asserts that the new prison will be "most conducive to their reformation and to the repression of crime" (217).

We believe the whole principle of the erection resolves itself into a greater uniformity of plan and purpose than has yet been exhibited in prison architecture. A more decided facility for the perfect classification of prisoners, and a total impossibility of any means of escape from the fact of a perpetual surveillance having been contrived to operate along the walls from every angle of the building. The exterior is less repulsive than that of many edifices of the kind; but what we have principally to hope, for the benefit of society, is, that the interior may be little and as seldom tenanted, so that it may be set up less as a symbol of punishment, than as a sign of the diminution of crime.

Five months later, in the issue of 7 January 1843, the Illustrated London News described the Pentonville Prison at greater length:

About midway, to the right of the Chalk-road, which leads from the foot of Pentonville-hill to Holloway, for two years and a half past, has been in progress the vast assemblage of buildings of which the engraving on our first page presents but a partial view. Its general appearance is that of a prison-fortress, upon an elevated site, within lofty "boundary walls," enclosing, in the form of an irregular pentagon, an area of 6 3/4 acres; besides a lower outer, or curtain, wall, with massive .posterns at the two points of entrance In the principal front, and surrounding a terraced-walk on the other sides of the entire plan. Such lithe Pentonville Prison, which, from its presenting several new principles of construction, proposed to be extended to the several county gaols in the kingdom, has been termed "The Model Prison, on the Separate System," or the perpetual separation of the prisoners from each other. The plan appears to have been submitted by the Inspector of Prisons to Lord John Russell, when Secretary of State for the Home Department, and who, in Parliament, on May 5, 1840, stated it to be the opinion of the Inspectors and the Government, that "the separate system would be likely to prove highly beneficial, both to the prisoners and the public." The stone of this new prison was laid by the Marquis of Normanby, in the April of the above year; and its erection has cost the large sun of 85,000. It presents but few attempts at architectural embellishment; the pilasters and columns of the entrance gateway and building are relieved with rusticated work, and a line of cornices embellishes the attics: and from the centre of the building rises with an exterior prospect a gallery and lofty gateway, with three arched openings, the central one of which is filled with a "portcullis." Supplies can be taken to the kitchen offices, without interfering with the building, more immediately devoted to officers and prisoners.

The entrance to the prison is by a flight of steps and through a low doorway placed between two massive columns, through the broad passage a, on each side of which are the officers' rooms; and thence to the inspection or central hall, l, on reaching which the visitor, for the first time, becomes aware of the peculiar principle of construction of the prison. This hall is open from the floor to the roof, and will be the principal station of the officers: it is shown in the above engraving. Around it run two galleries, to which the ascent from the floor is by a geometrical staircase; and projecting from the centre of the lower gallery is a glazed apartment or lantern, in which will be seated the deputy-governor, who, from this central point, will command the entire range of the several corridors, and the officers on duty there. Opposite the door of this inspection lantern is a large door, communicating with a gallery leading to the chapel on the first floor of the entrance building. Returning to the hall, opposite the pier to the left, is shown the machinery by which the provisions are raised in trays through a trap-door from the basement, where are the kitchen and apparatus for cooking, and for warming and ventilating the entrance building.

The Prison Wings, or Cell Buildings radiate from this hall as from a common centre, and, in plan, present two-thirds of a star of six points; two wings stretching on the right and left of this apartment, in a direct line with each other; and the remaining two wings diverging in a fan-like form an open passage or corridor leads to the galleries and is continued into the store-rooms below; and the provisions being drawn up from the basement of the hall, are conveyed along the corridors in cast-iron waggons upon wheels, running upon the gallery front as upon a railway. The wings are lit by lofty windows at the ends and sides and from the roof. At night a powerful Bude light will illumine the central ball from its ceiling, and gas-jets will branch from the gallery fronts. The entire length of the wings, right and left, and that of the intervening hall, is 500 feet; and the number of cells upon each floor is indicated in the ground plan; the whole calculated for 520 prisoners. The wings are lettered A, B, C, D, and the ranges of cells numbered in each wing, 1, 2, 3. One wing has been set apart for female prisoners, and effectually, separated from the rest of the prison, the access to it being from a side door in the entrance building, which will be in charge of the matron.

The Inhumanity of the Silent System in Pentonville

What may be called "The Pentonville System" (based on the isolation of prisoners and the maximizing of the potential for surveillance of the entire prison population by just a few inspectors stationed at a central point) was evident at Belfast's Crumlin Road Gaol, built in the next decade, and the Philadelphia Prison, visited by novelist Charles Dickens during his first American tour.

As the silent system is the main ingredient in the discipline of the NEW MODEL PRISON the humane public cannot do better than to discourage it in warm and fervent terms, and to seek to procure its explosion by every earnest and legitimate means. Remonstrate with the authorities, petition the legislature, appeal to the gentler and nobler sympathies of society, and do not leave unprobed for mercy and pity the generous bosom of the Queen. The press will aid the public in its truly Christian crusade against cruelty; and these new model experiments upon the endurance of nature will cease to degrade the sacred name of justice, to make the law monstrous, and its retribution a disgrace and sin.

Other illustrations of the prison


"Pentonville Prison." Illustrated London News (13 August 1842): 217 and (7 January 1843): 1.

Last modified 9 September 2007