Profitable penitence: selling books for prisoners in seventeenth-century London

fetchimageIn 1675, Christopher Flower published The Penitent Prisoner, a short tract intended to offer divine comfort to condemned inmates and encourage penitence, a spiritual guide on turning the ‘Gaole into a Shop to traffick for Heaven’. This was very much of a piece with the literature of criminal penitence and scaffold speeches explored by historians like Peter Lake and Michael Questier. Yet what is interesting about Flower’s book is not so much its contents, which are fairly typical of the genre, but of the way in which he went about disseminating his work, arguably turning the ‘Gaole into a Shop to traffick’ his own writing. Evidently, Flower believed that the best and most direct way to get these books into the hands of inmates them was via the City of London. The Court of Aldermen reported that he had arrived with ‘a great Number of Bookes by him made for the use of the poore Prisoners in Newgate, especially such as shall bee sentenced to dye’. The Court ordered that at every session of gaol delivery, the keeper or chaplain should distribute 10 of the prisoners who would make best use of them, and paid Flower £5 in gratitude.

Flower’s success in this regard almost sparked a small trend. Later that year, Edmund Cressy, a preacher at Newgate published Captivity Improved to Spiritual Purposes, another spiritual handbook for London’s inmates. The sudden appearance of two similar works wasn’t complete chance. Cressy acknowledged that ‘lately the necessities of Prisoners were in some measure provided for by the pious pains of one Mr. Flower the Worthy Rector of St. Margaret Lothbury’. Yet he considered Flower’s work limited, leaving ‘room for another Writer’. Cressy implied he was better placed, pointedly insisting that writing should be ‘suitable to the profession and employment of the Author’, perhaps staking out his claim to authority on the topic as Newgate’s preacher.
His promise to expand on Flower’s work was not unfounded. Weighing in at over 120 pages, this was no ephemeral pamphlet but a kind of religious reference work for spiritual survival in prison. It contained lengthy chapters for debtors, for ‘malefactors’ sentenced to public shame or corporal punishment, for criminals awaiting the death penalty, for those sentenced to death but since reprieved, for those ‘who have their Education” in Christ Church Hospital, for those ‘whose care [and] Provisions made in’ the hospitals of St Bartholomew and St Thomas the Apostle and, finally, for ‘those that have been restored to their senses’ in Bethlem. Each contained lengthy spiritual advice and one or two prayers for each particular condition, often borrowed from other sources.

fetchimage (1)As well as following Flower’s choice of genre, Cressy had spotted an opportunity to circulate his writing. He explicitly noted Flower’s success in this regard, commenting that his book was ‘not long since offered to the Right Honourable the Court of Aldermen, and received by them with a kind approbation’. In turn, Cressy presented 300 copies of the book to the Court of Aldermen. The court ordered that 60 should be distributed to the city’s prisons and hospitals, specifically to those ‘persons who are most Likely to make good use of them’ and to be left behind upon discharge for the use of others. The rest were to be held by the town clerk and distributed according to the Court’s discretion. In return, Cressy was awarded a gift of £20. Cressy didn’t stop there. On 9 October, the governors of St Bartholomew’s Hospital recorded that he arrived with a further 60 copies. The governors accepted them, ordering two to be delivered to every sister ‘with a strict charge that they see them preserved and read by the patients without embezzling or losing.’ It is clear that Cressy did not intend to make a loss on this endeavour. As the St Bartholomew’s records put it, ‘his modest desire and expectation was to have some compensation for the same.’ As a result, the governors granted him £3 ‘as a gratuity and for his pains’.

In effect, Cressy had been paid 1s 4d per book by the Court of Aldermen and 1s per book by the governors of St Bartholomew. This probably wasn’t a bad wholesale return, even for such a substantial book, and likely more than covered the cost of production. As a way of dispersing a book without incurring the cost of printing yourself—and perhaps even making a little money in the process—this wasn’t a bad scheme. Indeed, the cost perhaps tempered the Aldermen’s gratitude at this unsolicited donation. As they granted Cressy their gift of £20, they made explicit that this wasn’t to become a precedent, and resolved not to accept any more books thereafter, ‘unlesse printed by the appointm[en]t of this Court’.

These books are fascinating insight into both the purpose of imprisonment, and yet another set of opportunities that gaols provided to enterprising individuals perhaps as concerned with their own benefit as the good of the inmates. They remind us that the prison as a site of reformation through contrition—that is, as a penitentiary—pre-dated the late eighteenth-/early nineteenth-century reform movement, and show how the same logic of spiritual penitence in confinement could be extended beyond the convicted criminal to debtors, the poor, the mentally unwell and the infirm. The Court of Aldermen saw the potential of this, although were perhaps sceptical whether it was worth the repeated costs.

Richard Bell


London Metropolitan Archives, Court of Aldermen Repertory 80, fos. 146v, 268v-269r.

Christopher Flower, The Penitent Prisoner (London: 1675).

Edmund Cressy, Captivity Improved to Spiritual Purposes (London: 1675).

Norman Moore, The History of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (London: C. Arthur Pearson Ltd, 1918), ii.335.

Peter Lake and Michael Questier, The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists and Players in Post-Reformation England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), chapters 6 & 7.

On costs of printing, see: Jason Peacey, Print and Public Politics in the English Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

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