About this Project

The turn of the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of the modern penal regime in England. Prison reform collided with changes to the penal code which would ensure that the prison became the most predominant form of punishment for criminals.

A key part of that transformation was the enactment of an important piece of legislation which sought to transform a scattered collection of local gaols and lock-ups into a rational prison system which was both secure and uniform: the 1823 Gaols Act. This legislation contained what many, then and today, would regard as an almost revolutionary clause, that:

‘Provision shall be made in all Prisons for the Instruction of Prisoners of both Sexes in Reading and Writing’

The 1823 Gaols Act marks the first moment at which the British government legislated for the provision of (compulsory) education for a particular social group. It pre dates similar legislative schemes for child paupers and child factory workers (1830s) or criminal children (1850s), and by almost 50 years the establishment of a national system of elementary education (1870). Moreover, it sought to ensure that all prisoners were educated, children and adults, men and women. Yet both the legislation, and its consequences, have been almost entirely overlooked in the historical record.

The aim of this project is to set the record straight, to address this gaping hole in our understanding of the evolution of the modern prison. The mission to educate prisoners was not only part and parcel of the birth of the modern prison, but it survived and even expanded during periods in which penal philosophy hardened and the punishment of the offender was prioritised.

The project has three main questions at its core:

But I am also interested in exploring broader issues that are raised by prison education, for example, in the history of reading, as well thinking about the relevance of nineteenth-century schemes for policy-making and practice in prison education today.


Dr Rosalind Crone

I am a Senior Lecturer in History at The Open University. My interest in prison education in some respects naturally fell out of several other research projects I have worked on – one on crime and popular culture and one on the history of reading – but was really kick-started by two key teaching experiences: the first, using criminal calendars as evidence in a course on literacy which I co-taught for a year with Dr Gillian Sutherland at Cambridge University; and the second, learning about accessibility issues in course production at The Open University.

Since the summer of 2008, I have been digging around in record offices across England and delving into Parliamentary Papers to find out why prisoners were targeted as a social group in need of education and to uncover the sheer scale of the drive to educate them. In spring 2014, I was awarded an AHRC Early Career Fellowship to complete this research and disseminate the findings. During this intensive phase of the project, I will be working alongside two research assistants, Dr Lesley Hoskins and Dr Rebecca Preston, as well as collaborating with two experts in related fields: Professor Megan Sweeney (University of Michigan), author of the highly acclaimed Reading is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons and Dr Katie Halsey (University of Stirling), a leading authority in the practice of reading in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

For more information about me, including other projects I have worked on and things I have published, see my staff page at The Open University (http://www.open.ac.uk/people/rhc78).

Research Assistants:

Dr Lesley Hoskins

Lesley Hoskins is a researcher and curator, working mostly on the domestic and institutional environments and ways of life of ordinary people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Dr Rebecca Preston

Rebecca Preston researches landscape and the built environment in urban and suburban Britain, with a special interest in the design and use of different kinds of living space in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Back to the Future?

Great Expectations for Prison Education

Conference on Defining Prison Education, June 2016

What is ‘prison education’?

‘Educating Criminals’ Site Goes Live

The Prison and Literacy in 19th Century England

Contact the Research Team