1862; Portland prison, The Pleasantness of Penal Servitude.

These facts are taken from an article penned by an unnamed author in the Cheltenham Chronicle of 23rd December 1862 and yes, that is genuinely what he titles his article…. The Pleasantness of Penal Servitude!

They relate to the prison that was built on Portland to contain the convict labour force for building the Portland breakwater and the Verne citadel.

These men had been shipped here by the government as free labour. Their lives were harsh and often dangerous, working in the quarries alongside the Portland quarry men. Many paid the ultimate price for their dastardly deeds, but many were here for crimes that had been committed through the sheer necessity to survive.

The prison received its first inmates in 1848.

What follows is information taken from the news article… I suspect that maybe some of it is to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Firstly, from the reporters habit of embellishing somewhat on certain facts and figures in the desire to give their Victorian readers the sensational articles they so often enjoyed, and secondly, the prison authorities  tours of the prison and its ‘modern’ facilities to the reporters that frequented these places may have been somewhat staged for the duration of the guided tour!

The majority of the prisoners were here for hard labour, and down in the dusty, dangerous quarries, it certainly was that…for some!

They worked in gangs, mainly by themselves, sometimes with the Portland quarry men. It was said that you knew when you were about to come upon a prison gang, all around the rim of the deep pits of the quarries stood the warders. Men armed, ready for any signs of trouble or disobedience.

The writer of the piece was certainly not impressed with what he witnessed on his tour!

The prisoners stand out, they have closely shaven heads, and very distinctive dress.

Their uniforms picked out the sense of the man. Some worked in chains, their past history deeming them a risk of flight or violence.Those who were  dressed in grey and yellow, these were the ruffians who had tried to run away in the past. Those in grey and black were the ones the warders had to watch closely, they were deemed violent, particularly towards those who guarded them so closely. Not without good cause, as a few warders had become the victims of their anger and violence, some attacked, and a few murdered in a most foul manner. These chained men he complains “clank about with a defiant swagger as if their chains were honourable distinctions of their strength and courage,”


The author of the piece almost romantically describes the confined men as “their hard, firm, ruddy, healthy look, like pugilists in condition for a fight.”

His next sentence is not quite so flattering, he compares the way that they work. The convicts have a “slow, laze way of working”, which contrasts with “the busy energy and speed of the free workmen.” What he conveniently forgets to mention is that the free mens wages depended on how much stone they mined during their long shifts! The author complains how when it starts to rain, the prisoners are marched to the shelter of tin sheds that had been erected for their convenience, while the free man carried on, no matter the inclement weather, he had to endure what Heaven sent down if he wanted to earn a crust for himself and his family.


He also compares the two classes when it comes to meal times.

The free men stop at 12 o’clock, having already done twice as much work as any two convicts together, their chairs a slab of dusty white stone, their simple lunch of bread and cheese, or maybe a bit of dried fish, washed down with a tin pot of coffee.

The convict however, has it easy. He stops at 11.30.a.m. when they are marched back to their cells. here he can wash up, and comb his hair (though what hair exactly he’s supposed to be combing I’m not sure, as they were all shaved!) at 12 o’clock steaming hot dinners are dished out to the gangs, an example of which follows “One pint of soup properly seasoned, thickened with barley, rice, carrots, and onions, and equal in nutrient to any ever placed on a gentleman’s table; 5 1/2 oz of cooked meat, free from bone; 1 lb of potatoes, and 10 oz of rich suet pudding.” The men then retire to the comfort of their cells for an hour to enjoy their feast.

But a few cause trouble, complaining about the quantities they had been given, the rules of the prison dictate that a warder had to march the prisoner to the kitchens to have his meal weighed to prove that they were allocated their correct portion.

The men were also divided into stages…depending on how much of their sentence they had served, and how they had behaved. Those in the 3rd and 4th stage were granted extra comforts and priviledges. They could dine in a communal room with fellow convicts. On Sundays those in the third stage received extra rations, 2 oz of cheese, 3 oz of bread, and a pint of beer. Those lucky few who had reached the dizzying heights of the 4th stage could look forwards to treacle pudding as a welcome treat after their meals on a Thursday, and on Sundays their beef was baked instead of boiled!

The writers biggest gripe is that these men in the final stages of their time were eating far better than the hard working quarrymen. “we gradually raise the scale of luxuries till they dine at last on soup, baked beef, bread and cheese and beer, and pudding.”

No wonder, claims he, that men are no longer afraid of penal servitude when they are treated to such luxuries.

Then the irate author goes on the describe other parts of the convicts days.

Men could put their names down to go and see the govenor. Mainly concerning permission to write a letter. They were only supposed to write and receive one letter every three months, but the rules were not enforced. Some asked to change duties from toiling in the quarries, asking to be transferred to the prison garden, or working on the railways that served the works at the breakwater. He bemoans that fact that the prison looks to all intense purposes as if they were pandering to every whim that the prisoners demanded.


At 1 o’clock, the men are gathered in the courtyard, where the reports of discipline are read out. The governor then makes his way to visit those who were confined to the “separate cells”, the disorderly and the violent, or those who show an unwillingness to work. They were reduced to 1lb of bread and water, literally on ‘bread and water’ for the day. Lying, as the writer bitterly complains “on their backs all day.”

Then its back to work in the quarries for the majority, it grates on him when he talks about watching them at work. “Hard labour” being a farcical term for what these men were doing, talking , laughing, discussing ways of smuggling ‘little luxuries’ in via the free men. Whiling away their time in an almost leisurely manner until it was the end of their working day.

I get the sense that the more he saw, the more angry he was becoming, what he described as the failure of the penal system.

Back in the prison, the men would attend evening service in the chapel, then return for their suppers in their cells. Lights out at 8 o’clock, excepting for those men who were in the last part of their sentences, again they had extra privileges, they could read until 9.

Mornings started early for them, 5 o’clock in the summer time, 5.30 in the dark winter hours.

Their days began with cleaning and sweeping out their cells, their morning ablutions, after which they received their breakfasts. On Sundays and 3 of the week days it consisted of 1pint tea and 12 oz of bread, On the others it was 1pt cocoa and 12 oz of bread.

It was off to repent their sins again in the chapel before presenting themselves for work at 7 o’clock sharp in the courtyard.

To top it all, each prisoner received a half a days free schooling each week. On that day he was allowed to take a bath and have his hair cut.

On Sundays the had complete freedom  to walk about the yard, or sit and read in their cells.

The author was obviously not at all impressed with what he had witnessed in Portland prison, bemoaning the fact that while the free men working in the quarries had to strive hard for very little in return, these so called convicts undergoing “hard labour” were living the life of riley!


In all probability, what was supposed to happen in prisons, food quantities, free time, education maybe wasn’t as quite cut and dried as he had described it, and the unfairness of those who had committed crimes living a life better than those who strived to maintain theirs wasn’t that simple.

Who knows, maybe he was right…but I sure know which side of that heavy wall I would have wanted to be.


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I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
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