by Laura Saunders
Manchester, a city renowned for its industrialisation throughout the Victorian era, has seen much change throughout the years. However, Manchester still houses one of the most formidable buildings of nineteenth century Britain, Strangeways prison, nowadays referred to as HM Prison Manchester. The building itself was opened in 1868 and still functions today as a category A men’s prison.
For this project I want to look into the history of Manchester’s Victorian prisons, with particular focus on Strangeways Prison. I will look at the construction, the structure of prisons and the treatment of prisoners. I will also look at the executions which took place within Strangeways Prison.
I want to open the prison gates and take a step back into Victorian jail.
Design and Construction of Strangeways Prison
Strangeways prison was designed by Alfred Waterhouse using the Panopticon (radial) concept that was being employed all over Britain at the time. Waterhouse was assisted by Joshua Jebb, the Surveyor General of Prisons, who had also been involved with the design of London’s Pentonville Prison. Construction on Strangeways Prison began in 1862 and was completed in 1869 at a cost of £170,000 (which is around £7.3 million in today’s money).
The Prison was built on the grounds of Strangeways Park and Gardens, neighbouring Manchester’s Assize Courts, which have since been demolished, and were also designed by Waterhouse. The prison itself was built to replace the New Bailey prison in Salford which closed in 1868, to house both male and female prisoners. Strangeways Prison ceased to do this in 1963 when it became a solely male prison, of the category A division.
Strangeways is a brick construction, following the pentatonic design which from an aerial view makes the building look somewhat like a snow flake, with each wing branching in a different direction. The walls of the wings of the prison are rumoured to be sixteen feet thick and impenetrable from either inside or out, making escape near enough impossible. The ventilation tower, a staple in Manchester’s skyline, stands tall at 234ft. This structure was created to heat and ventilate the prison and is of minaret style.
The building no longer uses this feature of the tower, however, it still remains one of North Manchester’s most prominent landmarks.
As mentioned earlier Strangeways was built as a replacement for the New Bailey Prison, Salford, as it was deemed inadequate for use in 1868. This same fact was true for another of Manchester’s Prisons: Belle Vue Gaol. Belle Vue Gaol opened in 1849. Prison records show that it was also a mixed prison, accommodating 329 males and 119 females. The prison was deemed unfit for use in 1888 and subsequently demolished in 1890, due to subsidence caused by an underground colliery.
Strangeways was completed in 1868 just after the law banning public execution was implemented in Britain. Strangeways was therefore built with the unique feature of a permanent gallows.
Strangeways official opening happened on the 25th June 1868. The prison had a capacity of one thousand inmates. Today the prison can fit around 1,200 inmates and up to 40 category A prisoners.
Inside the Prison Walls
Conditions in early Victorian Prisons have been described to be damp and squalid, unfit for human inhabitation, and the public wanted change. Prisons were overcrowded and with a growing crime rate during the industrial revolution as Rodgers and Morris cite Engles to describe that “’In Manchester policemen are beaten every day’ a fact of Victorian social life by no means restricted to either Manchester or the 1840s.” The only answer was to build more prisons like Strangeways and Belle Vue. At the time of Belle Vue’s opening, every prisoner was isolated in their own cell, solitary confinement if you wish. Living conditions were harsh and human interaction between prisoners was minimal. Sending many prisoners mad.
The early Victorian penal system employed two approaches to the reformation of prisoners: –
- Separate system – prisoners were kept in solitary confinement for all or a large part of their sentence.
- Silent system – while confined to cells at night, prisoners were allowed to associate with each other for work and exercise, although silence was enforced.
The Home Office opinion fell on the side of the separate system and by 1850 around sixty British prisons were rebuilt or adapted to conform to the separate system.
Prisoners in Victorian times were subject to a hard life. And by the time that Strangeways Prison was completed in 1868 public opinion was that prisoners were criminals who could simply not be reformed. They just had to be scared enough of prison to not want to go back. The Prisons Act of 1865 (3 years before Strangeways was completed) ensured that prisoners suffered a ‘hard labour, hard fare and hard board’ life style, meaning that every day they would do the same monotonous hard work, eat the same monotonous food, and sleep on a rock solid wooden bed. It was truly a hard life. Reader explains that the prison system in Victorian England was explicitly punitive and that rehabilitation had little part in prison throughout this era. In 1877 local prisons came fully under government control under the Prisons Act through a consolidating Prisons Act.
Tasks the prisoners did included tasks such as tread wheeling where the inmate would walk inside a wheel aimlessly for hours on end purely for punishment. Other tasks included sewing and activities such as ‘the crank’ which was a wheel that prisoners would have to turn with their hands thousands of times a day with no specific outcome. Again, this was done with the sole intent of punishing the prisoner.
Food in prisons left much to be desired, like many of England’s prisoners in the 1800s Strangeways inmates could expect hard fare; a deliberately monotonous diet, with exactly the same food on the same day each week, which included gruel, basically a thin version of a standard bowl of porridge.
Executions at Strangeways Prison
Strangeways was completed in 1868 just after the law banning public execution was implemented in Britain. Strangeways was therefore built with the unique feature of a permanent gallows, one of the few English prisons to do so, up to the abolition of capital punishment in 1965. The late 20th century condemned cell and execution room were situated at the end of ‘B’ wing in the central area.
Twenty eight men and one woman were hanged in Strangeways between 1869 and 1899, the first being a young man of 20 named Michael Johnson, who was hanged by William Calcraft for murder on 29th March 1869. A further 71 people were executed at Strangeways in the 20th century – 68 men and three women.
A link to a video created by me, outside Strangeways Prison, Manchester, talking about the prison in Victorian times and giving a brief overview of the prison today. I also focus on some of the most notorious criminals to have been housed at Strangeways throughout the years, and how the prison system has changed since the Victorian era.
Alfred Waterhouse, The Architect Who Designed Strangeways
Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) was an architect. He designed many commercial buildings, including Strangeways prison, Manchester. His other notable works include the Manchester town hall, Manchester Assize Courts, and other impressive buildings all around the country. Waterhouse was born in Liverpool, but travelled Europe and later settled in Manchester where he set up his own architecture business with a staffing of 12. J.S Curl and S. Wilson state that “He consolidated his position by almost winning the competition to design the Royal Courts of Justice, London (1866–7—the buildings were erected to designs by Street), and by his success in the competition (1867–8) to design the brilliantly planned Gothic-Revival Town Hall in Manchester (1869–77).”. Much of Waterhouse’s constructions were designed in a gothic style, notably Strangeways Prison, however although Waterhouse was renowned for the design of his buildings, he was also known to be a very economical architect, overcoming cost constraints, yet still managing to create a building that had finesse..
In 1901 Waterhouse suffered a stroke, which led to his retirement. He passed the business onto his son Paul and subsequently his grandson and great-grandson. Waterhouse spent his retirement years in Yattendon Court, Yattendon, Berkshire and died on 22nd August 1905. He was buried six days later at Saints Peter and Paul Church Yattendon, a building that he had previously restored.
Reader. W. J Life in Victorian England, B.T Batsford LTD, London, 1964
Morris. R.J and Rodgers. R The Victorian City A Reader in British Urban History 1820-1914, Longman, Essex, 1993
Curl. J.s and Wilson. S, The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture (3 ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015
http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/victorian-prison/ This page focuses wholly on Victorian prisons and was extremely helpful in my research as it gave a concise yet accurate view into what prison was like in Victorian times.
https://archive.org/details/StrangewaysManchester.AsAPlaceOfExecution This resource gives a good overview of the hangings that took place in Strangeways, and also gives information of when and where hangings took place.
R.J Morris and Richard Rodger, The Victorian City, A Reader in Urban History 1820-1914, Longman Essex, 1993. This source gave me a great insight into Manchester during Victorian times and it furthermore provided me with information about the sort of crime that happened in Manchester in the Victorian era.
https://www.bl.uk/victorian-britain/articles/victorian-prisons-and-punishments This website allowed me to gain knowledge about the prisons, police force and the treatment of prisoners in Victorian times.
 https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/HM_Prison_Manchester; https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manchester_Assize_courts
 Morris. R.J and Rodgers. R The Victorian City A Reader in British Urban History 1820-1914, Longman, Essex, 1993 pp. 282
 Reader. W. J Life in Victorian England, B.T Batsford LTD, London, 1964 pp. 13
 Curl. J.s and Wilson. S, The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture (3 ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015