Catalogue description PENITENTIARY ACT, 1779

This record is held by London Metropolitan Archives: City of London

Details of ACC/3648
Reference: ACC/3648

Supervisors' Records

Date: 1779 - 1780
Related material:

For further information see Imprisonment in England and Wales. A Concise History by Christopher Harding, Bill Hines, Richard Ireland and Philip Rawlings 1985 (Library ref. 21.31 HAR). Related holdings in the Greater London Record Office include the Middlesex Sessions records, the archives of the Foundling Hospital (A/FH) and papers relating to Sir William Blackstone's marriage settlement and will (Acc/1360/580-592).

Held by: London Metropolitan Archives: City of London, not available at The National Archives
Language: English
Physical description: 6 documents
Immediate source of acquisition:

The documents listed overleaf were purchased by the Greater London Record Office at a Sotheby's sale LN5749 "Trumpet" on 18 December 1995 (Lot 474).

  • Howard, John, fl 1779
  • Fothergill, John, d 1780, physician and botanist
  • Whatley, George, fl 1779
  • Penal sanctions
Administrative / biographical background:

John Howard, the prison reformer, Sir William Blackstone, the High Court judge, and William Eden, member of Parliament and author of Principles of Penal Law, were responsible for the 1779 Penitentiary Act "to explain and amend the Laws relating to the Transportation, Imprisonment, and other Punishment of certain offenders ---" (19 Geo. III, c.74). As an alternative to transportation this provided for the building of two penitentiaries, one for males and one for females, where "solitary Imprisonment, accompanied by well regulated labour, and religious Instruction" "might be the means, under Providence, not only of deterring others from the Commission of the like Crimes, but also of reforming the Individuals, and inuring them to Habits of Industry". The three supervisors appointed to arrange for the purchase of a site and the erection of the penitentiaries were John Howard, Dr John Fothergill, physician and botanist, and George Whatley, Treasurer of the Foundling Hospital.


Despite their efforts, the supervisors failed to find a site acceptable to the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the judges, and the Lord Mayor of London. John Fothergill died in December 1780 and John Howard shortly afterwards resigned. Three new supervisors were appointed to join George Whatley. Although they agreed on a site and on a plan for a penitentiary, no prison was ever built. In 1784 the Government obtained a new Transportation Act. The Gilbert Acts of 1782 and 1784 allowed local justices to build houses of correction. Local Prison Acts also gave counties the powers to build new prisons. Ironically the Middlesex House of Correction was built between 1788 and 1794 at Cold Bath Fields, Clerkenwell, in the vicinity of the site originally preferred by the Penitentiary Act supervisors, close to New River Head and between Grays Inn Road and Bagnigge Wells Road.

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