The Role of the Prison in the Drive Towards Mass Literacy in Nineteenth-Century England

Historians of literacy and education have not only shown that almost universal literacy was achieved in Britain largely in the absence of the state (and especially in the absence of a national system of elementary education) but they have also described at length the various formal and informal modes of learning available as well as the wide range of different types of schools established both to feed popular demand for the literate schools and to control the possible outcomes of that demand. None, however, have discussed the role of the prison, and prison schools, in this drive towards mass literacy. And this in spite of the fact that prisoners were the first social group that the government decided was in need of legislation that guaranteed their literacy (namely the 1823 Gaols Act – see here for details).

This question, therefore, forms an important part of my research project. It was proving to be a very difficult one to answer as well. First, it is dependent upon the spread of prison education programmes throughout England. Although the government established a set of rules for the management of local prisons in 1823 and in subsequent legislation, it lacked the ability to force local penal officials to comply right up until the centralisation of the prison system in 1877. Not every prison had a programme of instruction for those confined within its walls, though it is true that as the nineteenth century progressed, more and more prisons did. Second, it is dependent upon the quality of instruction delivered at those prisons which did have education programmes. The majority of prisoners in local gaols in England served very short sentences, and given the small amount of time set aside for education (in many prisons just an hour or less each week), it is difficult to see how an illiterate prisoner could have acquired both skills, or even just the ability to read. At the very least, the skills he/she acquired might well have been very fragile. I’ve been working hard in the archives to address both these issues, by conducting a survey of local prisons between 1823 and 1896 to chart exactly which prisons (local and convict) had educational programmes, when they were established, and who was taught under them, and by examining sets of data on the outcomes of instruction.

In the meantime, I have come across a document buried in the Parliamentary Papers which provides a snapshot of prison education at mid-century that does go some way to answering that larger question about the role played by the prison in the drive towards mass literacy.1 On 18 April 1853, each convict prison (including the hulks) and local prison in England was required to submit a return stating the number of persons in custody, along with the number who had received their education respectively at prison schools, workhouse schools, Sunday schools, mill or factory schools and common public or private schools, as well as the number who had not received an education.

The results are thought-provoking. Only about 10% of the prison population on 18 April 1853 had not received any education. The remaining figures are a little harder to unpick, because a substantial proportion of prisoners had attended multiple schools and were therefore double counted. This includes those prisoners who received an education at the prison school: other sources (for example, gaol registers) tell us that some prisoners had attended a school before their imprisonment and used the prison school to either relearn skills they had lost or to acquire skills they had not yet learnt. But these uses do not reduce the role of the prison in contributing to the drive towards mass literacy. And the 1853 returns show that a high proportion of prisoners had received an education within the prison: 28%.

But that is just 28% of the prison population – what happens to that figure when the whole of the general population is taken into account? Rather well, in fact. Looking at the 1851 population census together with sets of judicial statistics for that year, around 7% of the population of England and Wales spent some time in prison (either in local or convict prisons). Taking the proportions from the 1853 returns into consideration, that amounts to almost 0.2% of the population who had received an education in prison. But in reality it is quite a bit more than this, because the effect is cumulative. Only about one-third of men and women confined in local gaols had been imprisoned before, meaning that approximately 70,000 persons were added to the number of ex-inmates each year at least during the early 1850s. That means that almost an additional 20,000 men and women year on year were likely in receipt of a prison education.

Of course the statistics are far from perfect. But they certainly have made me stop and rethink the roles of different agencies and modes in the drive towards mass literacy in nineteenth-century England.



  1. Abstract Return of the number of Persons in Custody in Prisons in England and Wales, specifying the Number who have received Education (Parl. Papers, 1852-53, LXXXI.311)

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