Historically Kent was divided into two districts: East and West.1 Consequently, for much of its history there were two county gaols. Imprisoned at Canterbury were offenders from East Kent, an area stretching roughly from the Medway river to the coast. Those detained to the west of this went to Maidstone. Both districts constructed new prisons in the nineteenth century; a response to John Howard’s national work to advocate the reform of prisons. St Augustine’s Gaol, named after the Abbey on whose land it was built, was constructed between 1806 and 1808, replacing an older county gaol in St Dunstan’s Street.2

Essentially holding places, county gaols were run by the local authorities to confine people awaiting trial or before other forms of punishment, such as transportation, were carried out. Later ‘public works’ prisons, such as those at Chatham and Maidstone, were developed as penal servitude replaced transportation from the 1850s. Canterbury’s new prison was also a House of Correction, however, and so confined petty offenders and vagrants sentenced to periods of up to two years hard labour. The largely nominal distinction between the two institutions was finally abolished in 1865 but local prisons, as many county gaols became known, continued to perform a dual role.3 At any one time, therefore, Canterbury’s prison would contain a complex mix of inmates – petty and serious offenders; men and women; but also a large proportion of those who were technically innocent and still awaiting trial.

Houses of Correction were designed to deter and reform offenders through hard labour, which continued until its abolition in 1948.4 Inmates were to perform labour ‘of the hardest and most servile kind, in which Drudgery is chiefly required’.5 Treadwheels became a common way of achieving this in the nineteenth century. Labour was measured in time, with the Gaol Act of 1823 proscribing a minimum of ten hours labour per day.6 Canterbury installed two wheels and a mill shed in the 1820s and these would become the main form of labour for male inmates.7 The treadwheels were used to pump water for the prison and the nearby Kent and Canterbury Hospital.

Treading the wheel continuously with only periodic breaks was gruelling and some prisoners died from exhaustion, as George Smith did at Canterbury in 1864.8 Accidents were also prevalent. In December 1858, Joseph Bolton was killed instantly when his head was crushed by the wheel while he oiled its machinery.9 Recommendations were made at his inquest to improve safety, but thirty years later another prisoner lost an arm in a similar incident.10

Labour was highly gendered. Female inmates, who made up only a small proportion of Canterbury’s prisoners, worked at needlework, laundry and cleaning tasks. In the 1830s there were so few women held that the prison’s laundry could not function. Consequently, female prisoners from Maidstone were sent to Canterbury after conviction to increase numbers.11 Female staff were employed for the women’s wing and, in 1882, an ‘improper correspondence’ developed between the matron and a male officer, leading them to be disciplined.l12

Originally Canterbury operated the ‘associated’ system of prison discipline. The complex mix of inmates were separated into different classes depending on their gender and the type of offence they had committed. Each wing was subdivided by a central partition wall, effectively making two separate blocks.13 Men and women had separate accommodation, but more serious offenders and House of Correction inmates were also kept apart. Prisoners of each class worked together in communal rooms during the day, retiring to their cells only at night where they slept in cast iron-bedsteads with a straw mattress, two blankets and a rug.14

Later the ‘separate’ system of prison discipline was preferred, and this required a new kind of architecture. Inmates were held individually in their cells with association strictly limited and a rule of silence imposed. From the 1840s the prison was expanded and re-designed to accommodate this, producing the Victorian cell blocks which remain today. Pentonville Prison, considered a model of the separate system, inspired the design of A Block which consisted of long rows of individual cells either side of a central corridor with galleries for the upper floors.15 Each cell measured 13 feet 6 inches by 7 feet 6 inches and in them inmates spent their days and nights working or sleeping in isolation. Two more similar cell blocks were added after the 1870s, when the prison was removed from local control and placed under a new national body called the Prison Commissioners.16

The new A block contained ‘special cells’ for punishing inmates who broke prison rules.17 These dark cells had no windows and prisoners could be placed in them for up to three days. In 1884, 21-year-old James Ells took his own life after spending 24 hours in the dark cells.18 He had been at Canterbury just two days on remand for theft. Flogging was another punishment, and this led to a Home Office Inquiry in 1888 following the death of Philip Jewiss.19 Philip collapsed in his cell 16 days after being whipped. He suffered 13 fits and died of apoplexy the following day. The inquiry absolved the prison authorities of wrongdoing, although it did criticise the inquest process for lacking transparency. Dark cells were no longer used after 1895, although ‘refractory’ prisoners continued to be placed in special cells.20 Flogging of prisoners was not abolished until 1967.

This article was published: 8 May 2023.


Crone, R. Guide to the Criminal Prisons of 19th Century England, (London, 2018).
McConville. S. English Local Prisons, 1860-1900: Next Only to Death, (London, 1995).


  1. E. Hasted, The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent, Vol. 1, (1797, London), 25. 

  2. Kent Archives, A AGe 1 Minutes Opening of Canterbury Prison. 

  3. Prison Act (1865) 

  4. Criminal Justice Act (1948) 

  5. Penitentiary Act (1779) 

  6. Gaol Act (1823) 

  7. Kent Archives, Q GGe 17 St Augustine’s Gaol Ground Floor Plan, 1824. 

  8. Canterbury Journal, 24 Dec. 1864, 4. 

  9. Canterbury Journal, 1 Jan. 1859, 2. 

  10. Canterbury Journal, 21 Aug. 1886, 4. 

  11. Second Report of the Inspectors of Prisons, (London, 1837), 378. 

  12. Newham, W. J. The Diary of a Prison Governor 1825-1890, ed. P. Coltman, (Kent, 1984). 

  13. Kent Archives, Q GGe 17 St Augustine’s Gaol Ground Floor Plan, 1824. 

  14. J. Nield, The State of the Prisons in England, Scotland and Wales, (1812, London), p. 102-4 

  15. Kent Archives, Q GGe 15 1, St Augustine’s Gaol, Ground Plan, 1852. 

  16. Kent Times, 2 Aug. 1879, 7. 

  17. Kent Archives, Q GGe 15 1, St Augustine’s Gaol, Ground Plan, 1852. 

  18. Thanet Advertiser, 29 Nov. 1884, p. 4. 

  19. The National Archives, HO 144 476 X22288, Inquest in Canterbury Prison on P E Jewiss or Lewis, 1889. 

  20. Prisons Act (1895)