John Howard (prison reformer)

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John Howard FRS (2 September 1726 – 20 January 1790) was a philanthropist and the first English prison reformer.

Birth and early life

A picture published in 1826, supposedly of the house where Howard was born.

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Howard was born in North London, either in Hackney or Enfield.[1] His father, also John, was a wealthy upholsterer at Smithfield Market in the city. His mother Ann Pettitt[2] died when he was five years old, and, described as a "sickly child", he was sent to live at Cardington, Bedfordshire, some forty miles from London, where his father owned property. His father, a strict disciplinarian with strong religious beliefs, sent the young John to a school in Hertford and then to John Eames's dissenting academy in London.

After school, John was apprenticed to a wholesale grocer to learn business methods, but he was unhappy. When his father died in 1742, he was left with a sizeable inheritance but no true vocation. His Calvinist faith and quiet, serious disposition meant he had little desire for the fashionable endeavours of an English aristocratic lifestyle. In 1748, he left England for a grand tour of the continent.

Upon his return, he lived in lodgings in Stoke Newington, where he again became seriously ill. He was nursed back to health by his landlady, Sarah Loidore, whom he then married despite her being thirty years older than he was. She died within three years and he distributed her meagre belongings amongst her remaining family and poor neighbours.

Taken prisoner

He then set out for Portugal following the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, travelling on the Hanover, which was captured by French privateers. He was imprisoned in Brest for six days before being transferred to another prison on the French coast. He was later exchanged for a French officer held by the British, and he quickly travelled to the Commissioners of Sick and Wounded Seamen in London to seek help on behalf of his fellow captives. It is widely believed that this personal experience generated Howard's interest in prisons.

Howard at Cardington

Having returned from France, he settled again at Cardington, Bedfordshire to live on a 200-acre (0.81 km2) estate which was formerly two farms, the larger of which he had inherited from his grandparents. His grandmother, Martha Howard, was a relation of the Whitbread family, and he became a neighbour and close friend of his cousin, Samuel Whitbread. He spent the next two years building properties and trying to improve the lives of the tenants living on his land. Later, a survey of Cardington in 1782 found that he was paying for the teaching of 23 children. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in May 1756.[3]

In 1758, Howard married Henrietta Leeds who died in 1765, a week after giving birth to a son, also named John, who was sent to boarding school at a very young age. The younger John was sent down from Cambridge for homosexual offences, was judged insane at the age of 21, and died in 1799 having spent thirteen years in an asylum.

High Sheriff of Bedfordshire

John Howard was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773, initially for a one-year period. Such was his dedication, rather than delegating his duties to the under-sheriff as was customary, Howard inspected the county prison himself. He was shocked by what he found, and spurred into action to inspect prisons throughout England. Of particular concern to Howard were those prisoners who were held because they could not pay the jailer's fee – an amount paid to the owner or keeper of the prison for upkeep. He took this issue to parliament, and in 1774 Howard was called to give evidence on prison conditions to a House of Commons select committee. Members of that committee were so impressed that, unusually, Howard was called to the bar of the House of Commons and publicly thanked for his 'humanity and zeal'.

Having visited several hundred prisons across England, Scotland, Wales and wider Europe, Howard published the first edition of The State of the Prisons in 1777. It included very detailed accounts of the prisons he had visited, including plans and maps, together with detailed instructions on the necessary improvements. It is this work that has been credited as establishing the practice of single-celling in the United Kingdom and, by extension, in the United States.[4] The following account, of the Bridewell at Abingdon, Oxfordshire, is typical:

Two dirty day-rooms; and three offensive night-rooms: That for men eight feet square: one of the women's, nine by eight; the other four and a half feet square: the straw, worn to dust, swarmed with vermin: no court: no water accessible to prisoners. The petty offenders were in irons: at my last visit, eight were women.

Howard viewed his work as humanitarian. Terry Carlson, in his 1990 biographical tract on Howard, remarks:

Howard's detailed proposals for improvements were designed to enhance the physical and mental health of the prisoners and the security and order of the prison. His recommendations pertaining to such matters as the prison location, plan and furnishings, the provision of adequate water supply, and prisoner's diet promoted hygiene and physical health. Recommendations concerning the quality of prison personnel, rules related to the maintenance of standards of health and order and an independent system of inspection, reflect the need for prison personnel to set a moral example.

In April 1777, Howard's sister died leaving him £15,000 and her house. He used this inheritance and the revenue from the sale of her house to further his work on prisons. In 1778 he was again examined by the House of Commons, who were this time inquiring into 'hulks', or prison ships. Two days after giving evidence, he was again travelling Europe, beginning in the Dutch Republic.

By 1784, Howard calculated that he had travelled over 42,000 miles (68,000 km) visiting prisons. He had been awarded an honorary LLD by the University of Dublin and had been given the Freedom of the City of London. His fourth and final tour of English prisons began in March 1787 and two years later he published The State of the Prisons in England, and An Account of the Principal Lazarettos of Europe.


Bust of John Howard over the main entrance of Shrewsbury prison.

His final journey took him into Eastern Europe, and into Crimea. Whilst at Kherson, in what is now Ukraine, Howard contracted typhus on a prison visit and died, aged sixty-three. He was buried on the shores of the Black Sea in a walled field at Dophinovka (Stepanovka), Ukraine. Despite requesting a quiet funeral without pomp and ceremony, the event was elaborate and attended by the Prince of Moldovia. When news of his death reached England in February 1790, a commemorative series of John Howard halfpenny Conder Tokens were struck, including one that circulated in Bath, on the reverse showing "Go forth" and "Remember the Debtors in Gaol".[5]

Howard became the first civilian to be honoured with a statue in St. Paul's Cathedral, London. A statue was also erected in Bedford, and a further one in Kherson. His bust features in the architecture of a number of Victorian prisons across the UK, such as at Shrewsbury. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1790.[6]

Howard's legacy

Almost eighty years after his death, the Howard Association was formed in London, with the aim of "promotion of the most efficient means of penal treatment and crime prevention" and to promote "a reformatory and radically preventive treatment of offenders". In its first annual report in 1867, the Association stated that its efforts had been focused on "the promotion of reformatory and remunerative prison labour, and the abolition of capital punishment." The Association merged with the Penal Reform League in 1921 to become the Howard League for Penal Reform. Today, the Howard League is Britain's biggest penal reform organisation.

John Howard's name was taken by the John Howard Society, a Canadian non-profit organisation that seeks to develop understanding and effective responses to the problem of crime. The Howard Association, a benevolent organisation founded in 1855 in Norfolk, Virginia, United States, was also named after him. There is also a Howard League for Penal Reform in New Zealand. The John Howard Association[7] of Illinois, formed in 1901, works for corrections reform in Illinois prisons and jails.

A statue to Howard is in St Paul's Cathedral, the first to a civilian, and a large bronze statue at Bedford was erected in 1890, the centenary of his death.

A terracotta bust of John Howard is incorporated in the gatehouse of HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, and another bust over the entrance to Shrewsbury Prison.

The John Howard Pavilion at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., is the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital for the District of Columbia. Its most notorious inmate is John Hinckley, Jr., failed assassin of then US president Ronald Wilson Reagan in 1981.

Samford University, located in the US state of Alabama, was founded by Baptists as Howard College in 1841. Samford's Howard College of Arts and Sciences remains the academic core of the university.

John Howard School in Hackney is named after him.

See also


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  • John Howard – by the Howard League for Penal Reform
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Further reading

External links

Honorary titles
Preceded by High Sheriff of Bedfordshire
Succeeded by
John Crawley