Some People Never Learn

By Maureen Storey

This article was published in the April 2018 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society

On 21 Mar 1865 19-year-old John Sole was found guilty of stealing a coat and sentenced to 7 years hard labour. The sentence may seem harsh but this was by no means John’s first brush with the law: in the previous 3 years he had been in court at least seven times for offences as various as stealing, wilful damage, fraudulently enlisting in the army and vagrancy, and had already served several short sentences as a result.
Twenty years earlier John would no doubt have been sentenced to transportation. However, under the 1853 Penal Servitude Act, the sentence for those crimes which would previously have earned less than 14 years transportation was changed to one of penal servitude with hard labour. This resulted in a greatly increased prison population and the building of new prisons to house them. Much thought was given to what form this penal servitude would take and what the living conditions of the convicts should be. It was decided that the prime purpose should be to reform the prisoners so that they didn’t reoffend, rather than just punish them. It was felt that much of their behaviour arose from mixing with other criminals and both the prisons themselves and the regimes imposed within them were designed to isolate each prisoner – in effect to keep them in solitary confinement.

Prisoners picking oakum at Coldbath Fields Prison in London c. 1864.jpg
Prisoners picking oakum at Coldbath Fields Prison in London c. 1864.jpg

Initially each prisoner was held under what was called ‘separate conditions’: he was kept in his own cell and allowed out only to attend the compulsory daily chapel service and for limited exercise in the prison yard. The prisoners had to be silent at all times and all forms of communication between them was strictly forbidden. In some institutions when prisoners left their cells they were made to wear a special cap which virtually covered their faces so that they couldn’t see any other prisoner who they happened to pass. Most prison chapels were designed so that the inmate sat almost enclosed in a box and could see no-one other than the chaplain. This treatment was designed to break the spirit of the prisoners and help them see the error of their ways – that it had the unfortunate effect of driving many to insanity doesn’t seem to have been taken into consideration.
Once it was judged that a prisoner was sufficiently subdued, the regime was lightened a little in that he was allowed into communal areas for work – though still in silence. This was where the ‘hard labour’ part of the sentence really began. The convicts were set to menial repetitive tasks such a stone-breaking and manning a treadmill. Here again the expressed aim was to break their spirit and keep them malleable. There was also an inducement to encourage them to obey the rules – well-behaved prisoners could earn an early release on licence (a ‘ticket-of-leave’), after 3 years of a 7-year sentence and 4 years of a 10-year sentence. On admission to the system each prisoner was given a target number of marks that he had to earn to be eligible for release on licence. For every week of good behaviour he was given a set number of marks, but marks were deducted for every breach of the rules.
So what happened to John after his conviction? Because he was eventually released on licence, his prison records have survived in the PCOM3 series at The National Archives and these have been digitised and are available on findmypast. He was obviously something of an awkward customer!
Immediately after his trial in March 1865 he was sent to Gloucester prison, where on admission he was described as 5 ft 8 ins tall, of slender build, with brown hair and grey eyes. He remained there under ‘separate conditions’ until June 1865 and was then moved to Millbank prison in London. At this point his conduct was described as indifferent, but he was said to have made satisfactory progress with reading and writing and his occupation was given as tailor.
He continued to be held under ‘separate conditions’ while in Millbank and the records that survive include a page from the misconduct book from shortly after his arrival there. It is interesting to see both what the ‘misconduct’ consisted of and what sanctions were imposed:
1 Aug 1865: Offence: singing Punishment: 2 days bread and water and forfeit of 42 marks
19 Aug 1865: Offence: disobeying orders Punishment: 2 days bread and water and forfeit of 42 marks
23 Aug 1865: Offence: idleness Punishment 2 days bread and water and forfeit of 42 marks
14 Sep 1865: Offence: having a towel concealed in his bed Punishment: admonished
8 Nov 1865: Offence: having a small rope of bagging twine around his waist Punishment: forfeit of 56 marks
At this time John was being awarded 56 marks a week towards the total of 13684 that he needed for early release, so it is clear that his progress towards obtaining his ticket of leave was slow!
John was moved to Portland prison in Dorset on 9 Aug 1866. The conditions under which he was held were different here in that he worked with other prisoners in the local quarries. They were still not supposed to talk to each other, but they could at least see each other and it would have been impossible to prevent some interaction between them. The misconduct book reveals that John was still constantly in trouble. His offences were wide-ranging and included several instances of talking while he worked, disturbing the peace by singing, insolence, and malingering, as well as threatening behaviour, wilful damage, fighting, stealing food from other prisoners but his most frequent offence was refusal to work. For all of these he lost marks towards the remission of his sentence, though the offence that was treated most seriously was refusal to work, which not only attracted double the average loss of marks but also the confiscation of his bed.
John did eventually qualify for release on licence but only after he had served more than 6 years of his 7-year sentence (had he abided by the prison rules he would have served only 3 years). His licence was granted on 31 Aug 1871 and he was then transferred from Portland to Southwark. Finally on 18 Sep 1871 he was released into the care of the Prisoners Aid Society of London, one of the several societies that had been set up to help ex-prisoners to find work and accommodation, with the hope that they would then be less likely to return to crime.

Portland Prison, Dorset. Now a Young Offenders Unit
Portland Prison, Dorset. Now a Young Offenders Unit

So did John leave prison a reformed man and go on to live a settled and productive life? Unfortunately the answer is no. A prisoner released on licence had to obey certain conditions, namely:
He must keep his licence safe, and produce it when asked
He must not break the law – even a minor infringement was not tolerated
He must not associate with ‘people considered to be of bad characters, such as criminals and prostitutes’
He must not lead an idle and dissolute life without visible means of support.
He must report to the local police on a regular basis (usually once a week or once a month) and keep them informed of his address.
Failure to comply with any of the conditions meant the licence was revoked and the prisoner was returned to prison to complete his sentence in full. In Dec 1871 John failed to inform the police of a change of address and as a result found himself back in prison. After finishing his sentence in 1872 he seems to have had only a few minor brushes with the police: between 1872 and 1889 he was imprisoned twice for begging and three times for hawking without a licence, but in each case the sentence was one of just one or two weeks imprisonment and this would have been served in a house of correction rather than the main prison system.
The 1889 trial is the last record that we have for John, there is no obvious death entry for him in the GRO indexes and it hasn’t been possible to find him in subsequent censuses.
Biographical note: I have spelled John’s surname Sole in this article because that is how it appears in the prison records, but his family generally used Soul (or sometimes Soule). John Soul was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, in 1845 and was the son of Henry Soul and his second wife, Hannah Price. Henry was born in Northleach, Gloucestershire, in 1798 and like many of the Northleach Souls became a blacksmith. By the late 1820s Henry was living in Charlton Kings with his first wife Martha and their growing family and working as a farrier. Martha died in 1838 shortly after the family moved to Cheltenham, leaving Henry with 5 children under 15. Henry then married Hannah Price and went on to have a further 5 children of whom John was the second oldest. Henry died in Sep 1859 and Hannah in May 1865. David, one of John’s siblings, also had some minor brushes with the law in his youth, but unlike John he eventually settled down, married and brought up a large family.