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Broth Boys – The Evils of Gaol Government

October 17, 2010

The evils of Gaol Government, however are to be attributed to those with whom they originate; for they are accountable for their acts, and if they neglect the exercise of a necessary control over their subordinate officers they are justly chargeable with the misconduct of the latter. Hence I was induced to commence a series of letters on this subject with a view to the amelioration of the wretched convicts. Of these I shall here subjoin the first:-

To the Magistracy of the City and County of Bristol.

I beg leave, with all due respect, to entreat your attention to a subject of vital moment to the convicts now confined in this prison, as of all who may by possibility be brought into the like unfortunate situation.

His Majesty’s Gaol for this City and County is under your management, subject to your control, and governed by your rules and regulations. I feel assured, that, neither our beloved Sovereign, nor his able Secretary of State for the Home Department, would approve the rules and regulations now in force, and I am therefore disposed to hope that you will deign their revision and to believe that in such case you will amend such as may appear to bear with undue harshness (to use a mild term) on the unfortunate whom they may affect.

The first subject, with reference to which I will venture to obtrude my observations on your notice, is that of “diet.”

At a recent investigation before the Coroner, on occasion of the death of a convict, the Governor of this Gaol, being sworn, stated that most of the convicts were weighed as they came in and as they went out, and that it very rarely occurred that they had lost weight during their imprisonment. Now, gentlemen, I beg leave to protest against this principle, as establishing a fair criterion for an them by the “diet” allowed. The scales will not give an inference as to the health. Men are not the more sound in constitution, because heavier in the scale. Whatever the quality of their blood it will weigh its weight. A scorbutic complaint will not make a man the lighter in the scale. The poor convicts are neither beeves nor swine. I am of spare habit, your Governor is not; yet I should have the best chance in the long run, with a fair start. Hence gentlemen, I would have you to conclude that your scales are not those of justice in this instance, for I shall not require that you should fatten your convicts.

Your weekly allowance to a convict in this Gaol is as follows:-

Bread 10.1/2 lbs
Soup -peas, barley and vegetables 2 quarts
Soup -beef, liquor and peas 3 quarts
Oatmeal gruel 7 quarts.
Beef 2.1/2 lbs
Cheese 1/4 lb.
Potatoes 8 lbs.

Look, gentlemen, on the statements, and say which of the two be more just. On the comparison, I have no hesitation in asserting, that either the Magistracy of the County of Gloucester are shamelessly profligate of the public money, or that of the City and County of Bristol, disgracefully unfeeling and inhuman. May I be permitted to indulge in the argumentum ad hominum and to ask you, whether, if any of you were in the situation of one of your poor convicts, you would not be of my opinion? But I leave it to such of you as are equally worshipful in both Counties to adjust the quantum meruit as equitably as may be convenient. I do not believe the Magistrates of Gloucestershire have any desire, unnecessarily, to pamper the appetites of their convicts, and I have endeavoured to persuade myself, that those of Bristol are not altogether indisposed to give the prisoners in their Gaol a fair chance of life and health. The latter, however, I find a matter of no small difficulty; for the prison diet is, in the opinion of all medical men whom I have consulted (and they are neither few nor inexperienced nor prejudiced) insufficient, either for the preservation of health, or the prevention of disease.

You will be pleased to recollect, that this is the “working” allowance, for your regulations enforce the exaction of active and laborious exertion, to which, indeed, I only object, in so far as it presents a claim to sufficient nutriment, and which claim is unheeded, or unacknowledged by you. I would ask you, if you so treat your horse? If you work him, is he not entitled to his corn? Or, will your unjust economy induce you to send him after his day’s labour to pick up a scanty mouthful in the pasture?Such, at least, is your treatment of your fellow-creatures! Nor have you the excuse of inability, for you have ample pecuniary means, and are in the exercise of extra-judicial powers, and are certainly invested with a legal authority to enforce a sufficient provision for the prisoners in his Majesty’s Gaol for this City and County. Yet, you do not accord them a quantum of nutriment beyond that which shall barely keep body and soul together for the time being.

Can you fail to perceive the dire effects in which this treatment must assuredly result? It must reduce the strength, and undermine the constitution of the poor convict, from whom you continue your extraction of labour, until nature sinks into the arms of disease, an unresisting, and scarcely an unwilling victim! And is not this STARVATION? By what other means would you designate it? A man enters the prison in robust health; he is put on the tread wheel, and receives the prison allowance of a pound and a half of bread daily, and a pint and a half of meatless broth four days a week. He is well worked every day, and all day, with the exception of Sunday. In the course of time, his pre-acquired strength fails him, for he must not look to your diet for his sustenance. Still he must labour; he becomes weak; yet still he must take his place on the wheel. A predisposition to disease is thus created; he becomes ill; is taken from the mill, put in his cell, drinks doctor’s stuff, and dies. Yet this is not STARVATION !

Your worships ought not to excuse yourselves, or to think others will hold you excused, on the ground that the friends of the convicts may supply them with beef or with butter. They may, or they may not. The convicts may be friendless. Some of them are so. The poor boy who died on Sunday was so. But, whether or not you have to support them, and what support is there in your worshipful allowance of bread and broth? None: for I refer you to Dr. Johnson for the meaning of that term, and you will find that it is maintenance, not as applicable to life merely, for the legislature never supposed you would imagine the right or privilege of destroying your convicts by acts of open violence, but as applicable to bodily health and strength, and to which object your bread and broth are inefficient agents, if they be not, as I am disposed to think them, in their process, antidotes.

Now, there are many things which operate as of necessity on the conduct of one in straightened circumstances, but which conduct, in the affluent would be regarded, and justly, as evidence of inhumanity or meanness. I have treated your Worships hitherto as rich men individually, and as having collectively, the custody of the immense income of the Bristol Corporation. But, I may be told, that you are not so rich as others think you; suppose not:- you will be still rich enough to act justly, although it cost you a portion of your superfluity. Yet, after all, my argument, in its reference to your wealth, extends, in fairness, but thus far as wealthy men, you should entertain liberal feelings, and cherish generous sentiments, whilst, as men without a surplus of means over the demands of necessity and comfort, you should, at least, manifest a disposition to benefit the wretched, whenever you could indulge in the luxury of doing good without any personal expense or inconvenience Take them, I beseech you, which character you will, and the duties will be nearly tantamount, for should it, on this occasion, be your pleasure to be rich, you owe it to yourselves, that you support and maintain the poor captive in health and strength; whilst, on the other hand, should it be your fancy to plead poverty, you ought not to let him die of starvation, if, without any expenditure of your money, you can feed and nourish him.

I humbly beg permission of your worships, therefore, to discard my assumption of your wealth, and, with as many apologies as it may be need your sanction of my new ground of argument, your imagined poverty.

Well then gentlemen, I solicit your attentive consideration of the subjoined commercial calculation, of the comparative expense of provisioning fifty convicts for one year in the two Gaols of Gloucester and Bristol.

BRISTOL                                          £.       s.        d.
Bread, 27385 lbs at 1.1/2d         171 –     3 –     1.1/2
Barley Broth, 2600 qrts at 1d     32 –     10 –       0

Support of 50 men for 1 year      203 –     13 –     1.1/2
Yearly support of each convict        4 –     1 –     5.1/2
Weekly Support of each convict                1 –     4.1/2

Or about two-pence farthing per man, per diem

GLOUCESTER                                       £.       s.       d.
Bread, 27385 lbs at 1.1/2d           171 –     3 –     1.1/2
Peas soup, 2600 qrts at 1.1/2d   48  –     15 –     0
Gruel, 18200 quarts at 1/2d        37  –     18 –     4
Meat, 5850 lbs at 6d                      146  –     5 –     0
Cheese, 650 lbs at 4d                     10  –     16 –     8
Potatoes, 69 cwt 2q.16 lbs at 1s       3  –     9 –     7

Support of 50 men for 1 year         £418 –     7 –     8.1/

Yearly support of each convict         8 –     7 –     0.1/2

Weekly Support of each convict             3 –     2.1/2

Or about five-pence halfpenny per man, per diem

A poor man may be honest, and although poor may render himself serviceable to his fellow creatures, and if it will be any consolation to your Worships, I will tell you that I am also poor, as the world goes; so poor fellows all, let us jog on together along the road of good fellowship with the City of Utility in our view until I am obliged to branch off to for the Borough of Tenterden, or you feel disposed to turn sail and back out of the bargain.

Why really, gentlemen, you could scarcely keep a cur for the money, and thrice the amount would not fatten a pig to a profit! This is truly the way to become wealthy, if you could only persuade people into the somewhat novel method of living on two-pence farthing per day, and at the same time acquiring, as it were gratuitously and into the bargain, that respectability rotundity which shall make them weigh heavier than ever an Alderman of the first water! Command me to your bread and broth say I, for it is high time I put off my spareness and pull on my rotundity! Eh? your Worships, why his Majesty might here recruit for his Beef-eaters or Yeomen of the Guard, as they then should be called with the term of Broth-Boys, as the denomination, seeing that they eat no beef, yet grow portly and royal Shame on your worships of Gloucester, whose convicts at this rate must over-run the County like so many living skeletons, consumers of beef and potatoes, themselves graduating towards consumption!

Well, but let us return to the pounds, shillings and pence, that I may show to your Worships how to be more just towards the poor convicts without additional charge of a single farthing, in short, how to find them better at a less cost.

Need I inform you that the more prisoners there are in Gloucester Gaol the less its expense to the County? It is necessary that I remind you, that they there earn more than they cost Any surplus is applied first, in reduction of the general charges, and next in the bestowal of a bonus to discharge convicts, for subsequent good conduct? You surely cannot be ignorant of the moral influence as well as pecuniary advantage of such a system of Gaol Government, the system of the philanthropic Howard, worthy your own beneficent Colston, deserving adoption (although late) by the hundreds who so very recently commemorated by their eating and, far better, by their charitable donations, the anniversary of that immortal Bristolian.

You have a treadmill, but you grind no corn; you keep it constantly at work, but for the greater portion of the time the men are at the labour-in-vain job of working against added weight, for the mere purpose of punishment! I know, I may be told that you have not a sufficient number of convicts to tread the wheel so that it should give action to the mill-stones; but why not have the stones of different dimensions, that by shifting the impetus you might at all times have worked productively in proportion to the strength of the gang.

Gentlemen, you need but declare that you have no objection to our convicts being fed as well as those at Gloucester, provided it cost you no more money, and I will engage they shall have precisely the Gloucester allowance, without the charge to you or your fellow-citizens of a single shilling per annum for their support, without working them more than they should be worked, or punishing them more than they should be punished, without interfering in the remotest degree with their safe custody under the existing regulations on that head, in short, without effecting other alterations than these; that they should be better fed, that their spirits shall not be broken by labour-in-vain, and that their health shall be preserved by exercise and nutriment.

Gentlemen, I pledge my consistency, and there is not a pawnbroker in Bristol who will deny that it is worth something (perhaps, something better than a prison) that I will enable you to do all this for the sake of the poor half-starved convicts and the approbation of my own conscience. Is it a bargain your Worships? All bubbles barred, and without affecting your persistency in the King’s Bench concern – for, and as it may be of some consideration with you, the philanthropic plan will not lack its momentum in Bristol, whenever it may be my lot to endure incarceration at your Worshipful hands. I subscribe myself, Worshipful Gentlemen, (because I can’t help it) Your poor Prisoner,


Bristol Gaol 21st November 1828.

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