Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast

Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, Northern Ireland is the only remaining Victorian Prison in the country. It has been out of service since 1996 but first opened it’s doors for prisoners in 1846. The Crumlin Road Courthouse stands opposite the Gaol and a tunnel runs underground from the two buildings, which made it easier to transport prisoners from their cells to their trials.


The design of the prison was based on HM Prison Pentonville, and it was known to be one of the most advanced prisons of its day. Built within a five-sided wall, the four wings are up to four storeys in height and fan off from the central area which was known as The Circle. The prison was originally built to hold between 500 and 550 prisoners in cells that measured 12 x 7 feet. It was the first prison in Ireland to be built according to “The Separate System”, intended to separate prisoners from each other with no communication between them. Later, especially in the early 1970s, as many as three prisoners were placed in each cell.


Interior of Crumlin Road Gaol


The first 106 inmates were forced to walk from Carrickfergus Gaol, around 11 miles, arrived in 1846. These inmates, who were men, women and children, completed the changeover of the two prisons. Children from impoverished working-class families were often imprisoned at the gaol in the early years for offences such as stealing food or clothing. Thirteen-year-old Patrick Magee, who had been sentenced to three months in prison hanged himself in his cell in 1858. Women inmates were kept in the prison block house until the early 1900s. Ulster suffragists, among them Dorothy Evans and Madge Muir, were imprisoned in the gaol during 1914.

When originally designed by Lanyon, the prison did not contain a gallows and the executions were carried out in public view until 1901, when an execution chamber was constructed within the prison walls and used until the last of the hangings in 1961. Seventeen prisoners were executed in the prison, the last being was hanged in 1961 for the murder of Pearl Gamble. The condemned would live in a large cell (large enough for two guards to live in as well). The bodies of the executed were buried inside the prison in unconsecrated ground and the graves were marked only with their initials and year of execution on the prison wall.


Crumlin Road Gaol is now a popular touristic attraction in Belfast and in 2012 I took a tour of the Goal. Seeing the unmarked graves of the executed and being in the cell of the boy Patrick Magee, who hanged himself, made me realise just how awful and horrific prison life was during the Victorian era. Nowadays the gaol is known to have paranormal tours as it is claimed that it is haunted by the souls of those who died there.


Image of interior in Crumlin Road Gaol:×682.jpg

Image of Crumlin Road Court House:

Image of outside Crumlin Road Gaol:

‘Affinity’ and Millbank Prison

Affinity is a 1999 historical fiction novel by Sarah Waters. It tells the story of Margaret Prior unmarried woman from an upper-class family, visits the Millbank Prison in 1870s Victorian-era England. Millbank Prison was a London prison which was built beside the Thames, so that it was easier to transport prisoners when they were banished to Australia and America. The prisons sordid conditions and poor treatment of the prisoners enabled diseases such as typhoid, scurvy, and cholera, to run rampant within its walls. Cholera broke out on numerous cases in the early and mid 19th century and the death rate in Millbank was extremely high.

piranesi's inaginary prisons

Piranesi’s ‘Imaginary Prisons’ (1750).


The protagonist becomes a “Lady Visitor” of the prison, hoping to escape her troubles and be a guiding figure in the lives of the female prisoners. It’s interesting that she pins a panopticon design of Millbank on the wall by her desk;


‘The prison, drawn in outline, has a curious kind of charm to it, the pentagons appear as petals on a geometric flower. . . Seen close, of course, Millbank is not charming. Its scale is vast, and its lines and angles, when realised in walls and towers of yellow brick and shuttered windows, seem only wrong or perverse. It as if the prison has been designed by a man in the grip of a nightmare or madness – or had been made expressly to drive its inmates mad.’ (Waters, p. 8)


The panoptic prison is meant to be place of light and rationality – but for Margaret Millbank it is a gothic prison of darkness, mystery, pain and suffering. The image that she places on her wall may be a reminder of how she feels, a prisoner of her own life.She is an overall unhappy person, recovering from her father’s death and her subsequent failed suicide attempt, and struggling with her lack of power living at home with her over-involved mother despite being almost 30.Her mother controls her life, just as the matrons control the prisoners and Margaret retreats to self-confinement in her bedroom.

Of all the prisoners, she is most fascinated by a woman, whom she learns

affinity front cover

Front cover of Affinity novel (2000)

to be Selina Dawes, a medium of spirits. Their relationship blossoms, and the novel sometimes hints at sexual and homosexual undertones. Selina recognises that Margaret is vulnerable and abuses her relationship and trust by manipulating her. She says to Margaret: ‘You are like me, then. Indeed, you are like all of us at Millbank.’ (Waters, p. 208) Selina begins to give Margaret gifts, and although initially Margaret is soon drawn into a twilight world of ghosts and shadows, unruly spirits and unseemly passions, until she is at last driven to concoct a desperate plot to secure Selina’s freedom, and her own.







Waters, S. (2000) Affinity. Riverhead Books

Image of Millbank Prison :

Image of Affinity book cover:

Image of Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons (1750) :

The Notrious Newgate Goal

Since I began my Prison Voices module, Newgate Prison has been mentioned numerous times regarding numerous texts. From Oliver Twist to Moll Flanders, Newgate stood as a poignant part of Victorian crime and punishment. I wanted to explore the history behind this goal and answer some of the questions as to why it was so notorious.


Fagin in Newgate Goal

Newgate Gaol was first opened around 1769 although there are records dating from much earlier around 1250 that state it was used for the holding of prisoners. As a result of the Prisons Act of 1877, Newgate ceased to be an ordinary prison in 1882 and was used only for those awaiting trial and prisoners sentenced to death awaiting execution. Newgate had the great advantage, from the authorities’ point of view at least, of being next door to the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) which was the trial venue for all of London’s most serious criminals. It saved the cost and security risk of transporting prisoners by horse drawn van from other prisons for their trial.


Conditions in Newgate in the early part of the 19th century were appalling and led to great efforts by early prison reformers such as John Howard and Elizabeth Fry to improve things. Elizabeth Fry was deeply shocked by the conditions that women were detained under, in the Female Quarter as the women’s area was known, when she visited the prison in 1816. See my Blog Post on Elizabeth Fry for more information on this. Many of the prisoners were psychopathic and mentally ill and there was no segregation, so men, women and children were all imprisoned together. Charles Dickens also visited Newgate, in 1836 and documented this in A Visit to Newgate. He describes the horrors of the overcrowded gaol and the different prisoners which he encounters.


Inside Newgate Goal 1735


Daniel Defoe describes in his novel Moll Flanders describes the horrific condtions of Newgate:

I looked around upon all the horrors of that dismal place. I looked on myself as lost, and that I had nothing to think of but of going out of the world, and that with the utmost infamy: the hellish noise, the roaring, swearing, and clamour, the stench and nastiness, and all the dreadful crowd of afflicting things that I saw there, joined together to make the place seem an emblem of hell itself, and a kind of an entrance into it.

Moll is trapped in what sounds like a nightmare. Newgate is a place where there is, quite literally, no escape. Moll describes it as an entrance to hell, thus the fear of actually being condemned to Hell for eternity scares Moll into repenting for her sins.


Defoe, D. and Mitchell, J. (1978) The fortunes and misfortunes of the famous Moll Flanders. United Kingdom: Penguin Books

Oscar Wilde and The Ballad of Reading Goal

Oscar Wilde was an Irish playwright, poet and and novelist. After writing in different forms throughout his life, it was the late 19th century that Wilde’s dramatic plays became incredibly popular in London as well as being celebrated and enjoyed across the world. It was at a similar time that Oscar first met Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, the third son of the Marquis of Queensbury. Bosie was well acquainted with Wilde’s one and only novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, a controversial novel that has underlying homosexual tones. Wilde and Bosie soon became lovers and were inseparable until Oscar Wilde’s arrest four years later.


Homosexuality was a criminal offense and a serious social taboo at this time in Victorian Britain. Wilde had gone back and forth between hiding his sexual orientation and attempting to gain some measure of public acceptance. After Bosie’s father, Douglas, a furious homophobe, began spouting his objections to Wilde’s behaviour to the public, Wilde felt compelled to sue him for libel.. Oscar withdrew his case but was himself arrested and convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labour.

Upon his release, Oscar wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a response to the agony he experienced in prison.. He and Bosie reunited briefly, but Oscar mostly spent the last three years of his life wandering Europe in exile, staying with friends and living in cheap hotels. Sadly, he was unable to rekindle his creative fires. He died at the age of 45 and was buried in Paris.


The Ballad of Reading Gaol gives an interesting insight into what prison life was like for an upper class male. While Wilde is focusing the story of the execution of Royal House Guards trooper Charles Thomas Woolbridge for the brutal murder of his wife, he also looks at the injustice, betrayal and the need for prison reform. The first half of the poem looks closely at the condemned, a topic which I will be looking at in detail for my final research blog. The first condor describes the inmate, his emotions and the situation, repeating the phrase “each man kills the things he loves”.

The man sentenced to death is not reacting how the inmates expect him to, rather than crying out in fear and self-pity, he seems calm and tries to enjoy what little time he has left in the world.


Whilst the man’s indifference continues in the days leading up to his continues, it is the poet and the other inmates who seem to be horrified at the sight of an open grave, not the condemned man. While he sleeps soundly the night before his death, the other inmates cannot. Wilde describes the morning of his death, the prisoners anxiously waiting the execution. Finally the execution is performed and Wilde describes the man’s strangled cry as he is hanged.

Works cited:

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Image of Reading Goal:

Criminal Justice in ‘Great Expectations’

Charles Dickens wrote some of the most infamous novels of the Victorian era, nearly all of which seemed to be preoccupied with the prison and criminal justice during the 18th century. Dickens possessed an intimate knowledge of the jail that came not though report or research but through a deeply personal experience that would profoundly affect his character and his writing.


When Charles was a young boy his father, John Dickens was arrested for debt and was sent to the Marshalsea Debtors Prison, where he was joined by his wife and children with the exceptions of Charles and his older sister Fanny, who were placed in lodgings elsewhere.

Dickens later told his primary biographer, John Forster, how his father had turned to him before being taken away and had tearfully told him that “the sun was set on him for ever.” “I really believed at the time,” Dickens informed Forster, “that these words had broken my heart.” (R.Jones)

In Great Expectations, crime is not so much a social issue as a psychological threat – a powerful influence that the novel’s hero, with all his ambitions to be a ‘gentleman’, cannot escape. Indeed, Great Expectations is not about Victorian England at all. It is set several decades back from the time of its publication in 1860-61. In the opening chapters Dickens takes his readers back to the 1810s, when prisoners were kept in the ‘hulks’ – prison ships moored in the Thames and the Medway rivers. These criminals are treated as utterly alien and separate. The escaped convict who unforgettably rises from amongst the graves in the opening chapter, the battered, ravenous man with his leg iron, is like a spirit come to claim Pip. The narrator becomes aware that there is no getting away from crime, but this is a reflection of his own guilty conscience rather than social fact.


At the end of the opening chapter the narrator describes himself as a child, looking out across the marshes and seeing ‘the only two black things in all the prospect that seemed to be standing upright’: one of these is a sailors’ beacon, the other, ‘a gibbet with some chains hanging to it which had once held a pirate’. It is at once an emblem of childhood fears and a sign of Pip’s entanglement with crime. He watches the convict limp off towards it, ‘as if he were the pirate come to life, and come down, and going back to hook himself up again’ (ch. 1). The disconcerting blend of comedy and terror is characteristically Dickensian. Here, childhood fantasy catches the novel’s disturbing truth: that its protagonist is shadowed by crime and criminals


Image of book cover:,204,203,200_.jpg

Image of Charles Dickens:

A gift to Susan Morris 1817

What is a ‘love token’? In the 17th and 18th Century when criminals and offenders had committed a crime, many were sentenced to transportation to places such as Australia. The offender would often leave a keepsake for their loved ones, because it was very unikely, even if they were granted freedom, that they would ever return to Britain. The love tokens were usually shaped made from an engraved copper penny sized blank coin. They usually included messages to their loved ones, and some even had illustrations engraved upon them.



The above love token is dated 1817. The front of the token has an illustration engraved with a rope border encircling the image of a man with arms outstretched, holding a hat in his left hand, with a small child next to him. The back of the coin, as you can see from the image, is engraved with a border of leaves around the bottom half and rope around the top. The image of two crossed hearts is at the top of four lines of text which read ‘GEORGE MORRIS A GIFT TO SUSAN MORRIS 1817’.

convict token back

The Back of the Love Token



I have conducted some research to find out more about George Morris, and his crime. George was born in Middlesex in 1796. When he was 19,he was tried and convicted at the Middlesex Gaol Delivery on 17 September 1817 for stealing 18 shillings from the till of Sarah Coates, a haberdasher in Shuldam Street, on 27 August. He was sentenced to seven years’ transportation and sailed for New South Wales on the Isabella with 230 other criminals on the 3rd April 1818. He arrived over 5 months later on the 14th September 1818. He received his ticket of leave on 23 September 1824 and died in Australia at the incredible age of 95.



We can gather from the image that appears on the token, of two crossed hearts, that Susan was possibly his wife at the time he was convicted from his crime. The image on the front of the coin, seems to be one of a gentleman and a young boy. Reading alongside his crime, we could suggest that this is what George desired, for him to be wealthy and gentlemanly, thus why he was stealing money. The image of the boy suggests that he maybe had a son with his wife or he possibly wished to have a family. It is very interesting how these love tokens provide a window into the personal identities and feelings of the convicts who created them.

Images of love tokens both from :

Image of transportation ship:




‘Oliver Twist’ and George Cruickshank

Charles Dickens famous novel Oliver Twist wasn’t actually primarily published as a novel, as we know it, but rather it was serialised in monthly instalments. These instalments were published in ‘Bentley’s Miscellany’ from February 1837-April 1839 and were written as they were published. When the novel was first published in book form in 1838, it was accompanied with illustrations by George Cruickshank a leading cartoonist of the day. 

Oliver introduced to The Old Gentleman by George Cruickshank


The above image is an illustration that accompanies an extract from the end of chapter 8, when Oliver is first introduced to Fagin. The illustration and text work together well to depict the darkness of the room ‘the walls and ceiling of the room were perfectly black with age and dirt’. There’s also a contrast between this darkness as the passage goes on to talk about the ‘table before the fire: upon which were a candle’. A suggestion that Fagin’s home is a light in the dark for Oliver, a sign of hope.

This scene contrasts with the earlier portrayal of the treatment of the boys in the workhouse. The loaf and butter on the table and the sausages being cooked over the fire contrasts with starvation and the hunger of the boys in the workhouse. The warmth from the fire and the boys smoking pipes, creates a sense of comfort and homeliness even in the darkness and dirt compared to the coldness of the factory. There’s a sense of comradeship and family with the boys, which Oliver didn’t ever seem to have before. 
It’s interesting to look at how Fagin is represented in Cruickshank’s illustration. Fagin is described as devil-like and the red beard worn by Fagin is similar to what would have been worn by the devil in medieval drama before being transferred to the Jew. Possibly suggesting the union of the devil and the Jew (Cohen and Heller 44). In Cruickshank’s illustration, Fagin’s ‘toasting-fork’ bears resemblance to that of the Devil’s pitch fork. His association with fire can be seen as a stand-in for the engulfing fire of hell. Fagin is the embodiment of villainy and is a character that was created to scare children and at times seems like a child’s distorted view of pure evil. It is clear than the character Fagin was created to scare children and adults alike, away from the evilness of villainy and the criminal world.
To find more of Cruickshank’s illustrations from Oliver Twist click the link below

Oliver asking for more by George Cruickshank


Whedon, J. and Dickens, C. (2007) Oliver Twist (Penguin Popular Classics). London: Penguin.,London. 71-72

Cohen, D.and Heller, D (1990) Jewish Presences in English Literature. London : McGill-Queen’s Press- MQUP. 44

Elizabeth Fry and The Reformation of British Gaols.

Elizabeth Fry at Newgate Prison, 1823.

Elizabeth Fry at Newgate Prison, 1823.

Elizabeth Fry was a prison and social reformist during the late 18th and 19th century. She was praised for her work in British gaols, especially with female prisoners, , sometimes even being referred to as ‘The Angel of Prisons’. The above image of Fry reading the Bible in the notorious Newgate Prison in 1823 , is a very renowned image. You might actually recognise it as the image of her appears on the British Sterling £5 note.

If we analyse this famous picture, we can recognise some important details about unreformed jails. Firstly I feel that it’s important to focus on the people in the image, such as the two ladies standing up in the right of the image. One has her dress falling seductively over her shoulder, suggesting that she was, and possibly still is in the prison, a prostitute. The woman standing alongside her, seems to have a pack of cards in her hand, thus the suggestion that there is gambling going on within the prison walls. Both men, women and children are all in the same room, an indication that there was no segregation of sex or of crimes. Finally something to think about is that there seems to be no prison officers supervising this visit and the door of the room is open, for prisoners to come and go as they please.

Comparing this image to the present prison system, we can see the huge changes that took place thanks to the prison reformists like Fry. It was as early as 1842 that the first reformed , Pentonville Model Penitentiary, was opened. Classification and separation of prisoners was mandatory, prisoners were constantly supervised and there was a standardisation of imprisonment, e.g. dress and diet. Annual inspections were taken and visitors to the gaol were closely regulated.

Elizabeth Fry appearing on the British Sterling Five Pound Note.

Elizabeth Fry appearing on the British Sterling Five Pound Note.

This reform was brought about by a group of humane, Christian reformers. There was also a wider growth in philanthropy and humanitarianism in the 18th century including campaigns to abolish slavery. Elizabeth was seen to exemplify this humanitarian campaign, setting up classes for women and even The Association for the Improvement of Women Prisoners in Newgate. Whilst Fry was seen as very kind and sympathetic to the female prisoners, she was strict. She believed that all women had to become, like herself, asexualised, they must give up their lives on the streets and become good wives and mothers.

Below is a very interesting quote from Elizabeth Fry, on her visit to Newgate Prison. Note the disgust and horror in her language as well as sympathy.

However to my surprise and far beyond my most sanguine expectations we have been enabled to demonstrate how much may be done amongst these unhappy outcasts merely by kindness accompanied by instruction and employment. . . . .since, even with constantly recurring communication with the most abandoned of both sexes in the City-without any other classification than the tried being separated from the untried, with sleeping promiscuously together in their wards and sometimes in great numbers, without workrooms and with no possibility of general inspection-together with the dreadfully hardening effect of many executions, the shortness of the time which we mostly have them under care owing to the continual removal for transportation and being replaced by the new prisoners . . .-yet with all this and having the very lowest and worst of the people to deal with, which may be called the scum both of the city and country our association has the consolation to believe that with the blessing of the Almighty upon their feeble endeavours, not only that the objects of their solicitude have been in great measure prevented growing worse, but that there have been some instances of a real reformation.



Proofread by Hannah Nicholls.

‘The Heart Rending Execution of Fanny Amlett’

From the 17th to 19th century broadsides acted as tabloid newspaper, holding all news of recent sensational crimes and murders. They acted as a sort of street literature and many, like the one pictured in this blog, became poems and lyrics that would have been sang on the streets.

This broadside tells us the horrible story of a sixteen year old girl, Fanny Amlett, who fell in love with a naval officer, who left her when she became pregnant. In a desperate act, she drowned her new born baby in a river, when she was unable to care for it. She then spent a short time in prison before being brought to trial and finally being executed at the gallows and the very young age of 17.

Fanny Amlett

The Heart Rending Execution of Fanny Amlett

The broadside is highly sensationalised, using hyperbolic and vivid language to tell the story of Fanny’s downfall and finally her demise. The opening title is a fine example of this ‘The Heart Rending Execution of Fanny Amlett’. It’s bold and would have intrigued those who glanced at it, making it easier to sell. The illustrations included in the broadside would also have intised an audience to buy her, the largest of these being the image of Fanny being hung in the gallows. As not many executions happened in small towns across Britain, this image would have been an exciting and intriguing one, thus more would have been sold.

Finally I feel that this broadside would have been used to instil morals in young women. Acting as a warning to those young females who romanticised at the idea or running away with a young man without their fathers consent. The verse tells us that Fanny’s execution left ‘thousands of spectators weeping’ portraying how emotional the case was and perhaps you could ever say that her punishment was unjust.


After doing much research of Fanny Amlett’s crime and execution, I could not find any information on her life or the date of her execution. I finally came across a note on the Harvard Law School Library Website that suggests that this broadside was actually a fictitious one.

The Heart-rending execution of Fanny Amlett is an example of a fictitious execution broadside. There is a broadside in the York Castle Museum which places her execution at Gloucester, not at York, as the Harvard Law Library copy does.

This emphasises just how important broadsides were during this period. Fanny Amlett’s fictitious death and highly dramatized story is an example of how closely popular culture and crime and punishment were. Similarly to the present day, the public were extremely interested in the shocking crime stories, and were viewed as a means of entertainment.


Proofread by Hannah Nicholls.

The secret identity of Moll Flanders

Penguins Classic

Penguin Popular Classics: Moll Flanders. Daniel Defoe

After reading the novel Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, one thing that really intrigued me is that the main character never reveals her true name. The word ‘moll’ was a term used to describe a prostitute in the 18th century, and the fact that the narrator is happy to refer to herself as this puzzles me. The narrator does discuss this issue at the beginning of the novel, “some of my worst comrades…knew me by the name of Moll Flanders, so you may give me leave to speak of myself under the name till I dare own who I have been, as well as who I am.” . She uses the name given to her by her former criminal acquaintances, possibly trying to hide her identity from those criminals who are still alive and could harm her or maybe to protect her family name. However, I feel that there is more to this fake identity.


As we learn in the first chapter, Moll never knew her parents so she lacks any sort of family identity therefore she feels that her only identity is that of a prostitute and criminal. However when Moll is narrating this story we believe that she has turned away from this life of prostitution and crime, making it unclear as to why she still wants to be referred to by this name. Defoe refers to Moll’s penitence in the Preface but from our initial impression of her, she seems to be  proud of her criminal past, ‘daring to own’ who she has been. She also states that it is still ‘who I am’, suggesting that it had shaped her life and that she has no regrets toward her actions in the past, contradicting the preface, and confusing the reader.

More questions arise from this confusion; who is Moll Flanders? Is she really a penitent of her past crimes? How reliable is her story? As we are unable to prove that anything Moll tells us is true, and her hiding her identity gives us no reason to trust her we could perceive Moll Flanders as an unreliable narrator. Defoe could just be representing a type of person through Moll, putting together the horrid tales that he would have seen and heard about women through his life , especially at his time in Newgate prison. Moll’s happy ending could be what Defoe dreams of what ‘molls’ should aspire to and what they could achieve if they only pulled away from their demeaning lifestyles.


Defoe, D. and Mitchell, J. (1978) The fortunes and misfortunes of the famous Moll Flanders. United Kingdom: Penguin Books

Proofread by Hannah Nicholls.