Contested records: writing, custom and conflict in early modern prisons

The following post is based on a paper presented at “Writing Prisons: Literature and Constraint in Early Modern England,” a mini-symposium held at Birkbeck in July (and kindly written up at the time by Brodie Waddell).

In this post, I’d like to explore the role of writings and texts within early modern prisons. That is to say, specifically the kinds of documents that were produced for use internally within gaols and their significance to day-to-day prison life. Recent work by literary scholars like Molly Murray and Ruth Anhert has revealed the scale and significance of early modern prison writing, a genre that has been capaciously defined to include everything from lengthy works of devotion and poetry through to petitions and letters.[1] Yet much of this survives because it was disseminated beyond the prison, whether to a wider public, personal correspondents or external authorities. It’s been harder to recover the significance of the huge amounts of paperwork produced for use within the gaol, partly because so much of it is lost to us.

But life inside was governed by written record, and much of this only made its way outside the prison walls in exceptional circumstances. Records were kept of inmates and the reasons for their arrest, tables of fees were supposed to be posted up for all to see, and constitutions and orders were drawn up and displayed. These all provided records of practice and precedent, a repository of local custom that helped define how prison life should be organised. These prison writings were not so much a means of attempting to impose order in a disordered space (as Molly Murray has argued for prison poetry), as one of bringing differing conceptions of prison order into contest.

It is clear that prison records were not a neutral depository of rules and precedent, but could also serve as tools and weapons within contests over prison fees and good governance. These could be deployed and contested in a manner familiar from Andy Wood’s recent accounts of the interaction of writing and memory in local custom, and Paul Griffith’s description of secrecy, civic record and governance in London.[2] Taken together, this work reveals how local customs relied on both oral and written records, and how dynamics of power in the uses of local custom were partially determined by secrecy and restriction of such documents. It is well-known that political prisoners such as John Lilburne pursued informal legal and constitutional training in the record office of the Tower of London.[3] Yet this concern with records was not the atypical work of one of early modern England’s most idiosyncratic radicals. It was a common prison practice, albeit one often undertaken in pursuit of local concerns.

Extensive legal records were kept in prisons, such as in the ‘paperhouse’ of Ludgate, and access to these records was considered a vital part of holding prison authorities to account. Marmaduke Johnson produced an extensive pamphlet describing Ludgate’s constitution (and the ways it was being contravened in 1659) that was based, he explained, on insight ‘afforded by Records, and some Books of History and Survey’.[4] Indeed, Ludgate had an extensive book of orders that was kept publicly open for inmates to consult.[5] Nonetheless, Johnson noted that while some records were ‘publick and commonly exposed’, he was also ‘denied the perusal of those kept privately’, revealing a power imbalance that often left key records inaccessible to prisoners.[6] Indeed, inmates often complained that tables of fees had been removed or ‘concealed’, leaving them unable to judge whether they were charged fair fees.[7] One extensive petition from the Gatehouse in 1634 began with a complaint that ‘to hide & cover his cruelltyes, & oppressions’, the gaoler, Aquila Weekes, ‘concealeth & deteyneth to him selfe all statutes institutions, ordinances, & orders that doe [in] any way concerne the gov[er]m[en]t, priviledges fees & customes of & belongging to the sayd prison in such sort, as noe prisoner can be acquaynted with any of them’.[8] Prisoners understood the power inherent to such writings, and bristled at the monopoly their gaolers exercised over them.

898-13 f-417r
A copy of ‘the Table that shall hang in the Hall of the Fleete’ from the 1630s (TNA, E 215/898/13, fo.417r).

Inmates were also aware that prison papers were not perfect records, and manipulation of documents was considered a fundamental part of prison corruption. As well as complaining that some records were inaccessible, Johnson also noted that parts of the public order book were ‘so obliterated’ as to be illegible.[9] It’s unclear whether Johnson believed this to be a deliberate destruction of the record, but in other cases prisoners certainly made such accusations. In the Fleet, a book of orders had been produced in 1561 to settle disputes between the warden and inmates. Yet in 1598, inmates once again began to challenge these documents on the basis of their physical form and condition, claiming that ‘certaine wordes had beene enterlyned’ in the original book and other pages cut out. Furthermore, there was ‘much controversie amongest the prisoners’ over ‘[e]rasure or blotting’ of the public copies of the orders (by whose hand was up for debate), as it threw into dispute whether the first week’s rent was included in the entrance fee.[10] Likewise, in the 1630s the warden of the Fleet stood accused of setting up a ‘false table of orders’ that included inflated fees and missed out duties due to the poor prisoners.[11]

Yet if prison records were a potential tool of corruption, they also offered inmates opportunities for dissent. When they were accessible, they provided knowledge that proved instrumental to challenging fees and conditions. In 1621, former warden of the Fleet, Alexander Harris, recounted how inmates had repeatedly accused him of ignoring precedent. Building on concerns over fraudulent documents, Edmund Chamberlain apparently spread a rumour that the Elizabethan orders for prison government were ‘falce and gotten by indirect means’. These claims convinced others to join in a ‘generall defection of payments’ on the basis that local custom and precedent was being abused. Yet Harris retorted that it was Chamberlain who challenged the ancient government and customs of the prison, claiming that he threatened to ‘shake the fabrick of the prison and [its] Constitutions’. Yet Chamberlain persisted; he fetched ‘certeyne Records out of the Tower and perswaded the poore Prisoners thereby that the warden had cousened them’.[12] Judging by Harris’ account, these uses of prison records were an effective means of mobilising inmates, leading to multiple riots and mutinies, although he maintained that they were duplicitous and offered his own defence of the prison’s constitution.

These uses of prison records reveal the significance of custom and precedent to prison conflict, and how they were central to these disputes. Although the existence of many of these texts was only reported second-hand in some cases, or copies made due to exceptional circumstances in others, it is apparent that access to and knowledge of prison records were pivotal to life in gaol. One of the frustrations of studying early modern prisons is that so many of these records have since been lost. However, traces of them still remain in the archive, and reveal a lot about how inmates and gaolers fought over the conditions of imprisonment and the proper ordering of the prison.

[1] See, for instance: Molly Murray, “Measured Sentences: Forming Literature in the Early Modern Prison,” HLQ 72, no. 2 (2009): 147-67; Ruth Ahnert, The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[2] Andy Wood, The Memory of the People: Custom and Popular Senses of the Past in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), chap. 5; Andy Wood, “Tales from the ‘Yarmouth Hutch’: Civic Identities and Hidden Histories in an Urban Archive,” Past & Present 230, S11 (2016): 213–30; Paul Griffiths, “Secrecy and Authority in Late Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century London,” The Historical Journal 40, no. 4 (December 1997): 925–51

[3] John Lilburne, The oppressed mans oppressions declared ([London, 1647]) [Wing L2149], 8, 18, 22. On Lilburne’s legal education in the tower, albeit based on his personal connections rather than access to records, see: D. Alan Orr, “Law, Liberty and the English Civil War: John Lilburne’s Prison Experience, the Levellers and Freedom,” in The Experience of Revolution in Stuart Britain and Ireland, ed. Michael J. Braddick and David L. Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 154–71.

[4] Marmaduke Johnson, Ludgate, What It Is, Not What It Was (London, 1659) [Wing J784A], 1, 5.

[5] TNA, E 215/961, p.3 (unpag.); Johnson, Ludgate, 15.

[6] Johnson, Ludgate, 16. On “public” and “private” records in civic government, including implications of ‘secrecy, enclosure [and] exclusion’, see: Griffiths, “Secrecy and Authority,” 927-30, 945-47.

[7] TNA, E 215/975; TNA, E 215/984.

[8] TNA, E 215/941/2, fo.1r (unfol.).

[9] Johnson, Ludgate, 16.

[10] TNA, STAC 5/A8/39; TNA, STAC 5/A10/13.

[11] TNA, E 215/918/6, fo.472v.

[12] Alexander Harris, The Oeconomy of the Fleete, ed. Augustus Jessopp (London, 1879), 121, 124-5, 139.

One thought on “Contested records: writing, custom and conflict in early modern prisons

  1. Do you know anything about the life and family of Alexander Harris, the warden? Can he be connected to the Alexander Harris living on Tower Hill in 1638? In America, in a will, the Alexander Harris of Tower Hill is claimed as a relative of Sarah Offley, daughter of Robert Offley II, a powerful merchant. She was the granddaughter of Sir Edward Osborne, Lord Mayor of London. Any information would be appreciated. Sarah Offley and her husband, Adam Thorowgood ( the brother of Sir John Thorowgood of Kensington and Thomas Thorowgood, a British Divine, author and member of the Westminster Assembly) were the founders of my city.


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