What Was Life in Prison Like in Victorian London?

DATED: 09.12.20

The Victorians had a clear idea of what a prison should be – as unpleasant as possible to deter criminals from reoffending. The majority were small, damp, riddled with disease and overcrowded, about as unfriendly as you can imagine, along with prisoners forced to take on hard yet uninspiring hard labour.

At the beginning of the 19th century, crime was relatively low with offences averaging in the region of just 5,000 per year in 1800 before shooting up to 20,000 per year by 1840. This was without a doubt one of the core reasons behind the overcrowding of prisons, which tended to be converted old buildings such as castles.

More Offenders, More Prisons

Some of the most common forms of punishments in early Victorian England involved transporting convicted criminals to other countries such as Australia, Tasmania (known then as Van Diemen’s Land) and the United States, as well as hanging. It was in the 1830’s that there was a shift in punishment ideology, as the public grew uneasy with the vast number of hangings and the fact that there were more criminals than could physically be transported.

Between 1842 and 1877, some 90 prisons were either built from scratch or added to in order to house the additional criminals as a result of increased crime and the shift away from transportation and hanging. With more offenders and the decision to cut down on the number of those being transported, it was clear that more space was needed in which to house criminals.

The Victorians cared little for where prisoners would sleep and how comfortable they were going to be once inside – in fact, there was very little in the way of segregation with men, women and children put together, as well as the insane and unhinged. Even if your offence was for being an opportunistic pickpocket, there was every chance you would be doing time alongside a schizophrenic murderer as well as other hardened criminals.

Different Types of Prison

In Victorian London, as well as the rest of England, two distinctive types of prisons could be found in the mid-1800s. There were prisons administered by Justices of the Peace, called county and shires gaols, which ranged from small to large reformatories, as well as what was known as ‘Convict Gaols’, which were under the administration of central government in the capital, situated at ports and were often converted decommissioned naval vessels called hulks.

The main ‘Convict Gaols’ could be found in Newgate, Millbank, Pentonville and Brixton and were largely used to hold prisoners prior to transportation to other countries. Conditions on the hulks were horrible, with large numbers of prisoners dying from outbreaks of disease such as cholera due to water taken from the River Thames being used for all purposes. By the late 1840s, hulks were rarely used and, in 1857, the last of these renovated ships were burnt.

What Conditions Would Jack the Ripper Have Had in Prison?

If Jack the Ripper had been caught in 1888, it would have been likely that he would have found himself in a prison such as Newgate or Pentonville. Here, he would have been awoken by the wardens’ warning bell at 6.20am (if he were able to sleep at all, in those bitterly cold cells) followed by a rising bell at 6.30am.

Upon the sounding of the rising bell, the killer would have to get out of bed and dress himself, which for many was regarded as a relief as this provided some element of warmth, empty out the chamber pots and tidy away the mattress, sheets, plates and mugs. Wardens would inspect the cell to ensure that nothing had been missed.

The Ripper would then attend chapel and eat breakfast before beginning his day of hard labour. Had he been ordered to work the treadwheel, his day would be spent walking the 24 steps, set at eight inches apart, for 15 quarter-hour sessions. He would be expected to climb the equivalent of 18,000ft each day.

Unsurprisingly, this punishment claimed its victims, one of which was Arthur Simmonds who died at 20 years of age in June 1888, a couple of months before the murder of Mary Ann Nichols. Simmonds was serving an 18-month sentence at Pentonville, but after three days of working the treadwheel his feet ballooned to four-to-five times their original size and could not walk. He died a few days later in hospital, with an official cause of death given as ‘brain disease’.

Would Jack the Ripper Have Gone to Prison?

It is unlikely that Jack the Ripper, had he have been caught, would have been sentenced to prison – at least long-term – as he would have undoubtedly been hanged, even though the public had been voicing their concerns with the practice for more than 50 years by the time of the Ripper Murders. The killer would have only found out what life was like in prison in Victorian London only very briefly, waiting for the day of his execution inside one of the capital’s penitentiaries.

Of course, there is every chance that the killer did, in fact, see himself wind up in the justice system for other crimes and under another name. The fact that the murders stopped so abruptly suggests that something must have happened to him – was he convicted for another offence? Did he leave London following his gruesome final killing? Or did he remain hiding in plain sight?

We will never know for certain, but you can follow the footsteps of history’s most notorious serial killer on a Jack the Ripper walking tour. Each tour is led by an expert Ripperologist who will guide you around Whitechapel, visiting each of the murder scenes and other places of interest and discuss with you the evidence and theories surrounding the case.

You can book your spot today by heading to our booking page here – we look forward to taking you back to Victorian London.


 7 Days a Week

AT 5:00PM & 7:30PM

Tour Duration

1 hr 45 mins


The Jack the Ripper Casebook