Home Office and Prison Commission Licences are one of the core sources being used by the Digital Panopticon to trace the lives of nineteenth century convicts sentenced to imprisonment in England. Licences began to be issued in 1853 when the 1853 Penal Servitude Act officially substituted terms of transportation for terms of imprisonment. Licences granted convicts undertaking penal servitude freedom before the expiration of their sentence in a system closely modelled on the Australian ‘Ticket-of-Leave’. The licence system remained in place well into the twentieth century.
The licences are split into two collections, the PCOM 3 licences for male convicts and PCOM 4 for female convicts. However, only a proportion of the total licences issued between the 1850s and 1940s have survived and are accessible to the public. For women only licences issued between 1853-1871 and 1882-1887 are available, and for men licences issued between 1853-1887.
What are the licences?
A licence document was issued for each convict on release, detailing the conditions of their freedom. However, the prison ‘licences’ can actually refer to a much larger collection of documents covering an individual’s entire time in penal servitude. The PCOM licences can contain items such as a penal record detailing criminal history, medical evaluation form, prison punishment records, and notes of applications by the prisoner to the Secretary of State. From the 1870s onwards, licence bundles also contain photographs of offenders and records relating to their correspondence in prison and, on occasion, police intelligence about their associates and former lives.
This example shows the licence issued for Caroline Jones when she was released in 1866, and her reception form at Newgate Gaol from when her sentence began.
These collections of documents were created by a number of officials over the course of an individual’s incarceration. Various legislation over the second half of the nineteenth century, such as the 1869 Habitual Criminals Act, made provision for the collection of an increasing volume of data about offenders. Some forms, like the penal record, were completed as a convict was processed into prison, others were produced over time as a convict served their sentence. Medical records, record of punishment, and applications and letters travelled with a convict to each institution they spent time in where it became the duty of different administrators to keep them up to date.
This left hand example shows the medical record of Elizabeth Davis, partially completed on her admission to prison, but updated with details of her weight every time she moved to a new institution. The right hand example shows the punishment record of Elizabeth Davis as she served a sentence of penal servitude in Woking prison between 1873 and 1875. Further entries were added each time she committed a prison offence.
Why are they important to historians?
How, when and, most importantly, why such extensive information relating to convicts was collected over the course of the nineteenth century is currently being explored as part of the Digital Panopticon’s Epistemologies theme.
The PCOM prison licences give historians an unparalleled insight into the imprisonment of thousands of ordinary nineteenth century convicts. The multifaceted remit of these records means that they are useful for studying the personal details of individual convicts and following their journey to and through the convict prison system. Documents within the licence bundles offer us the chance to amass details such as aliases and criminal histories, names and addresses of family members, police intelligence about a convicts ‘character’ and previous life all of which can be used to find the same individual in other sources. These records are also useful for developing a more comprehensive understanding of the prison regime during the mid and late nineteenth century imprisonment came to define penal experience after the end of transportation. Institutional paper-work shows how the system of labour, diet, and marks for gratuity operated on a daily basis. Lastly, any of these records allow us to examine in more detail individual facets of the convict prison system. Whether that be the development of medical provision for prisoners over time, or the punitive measures taken to control the prison population.
This example shows the penal record of Elizabeth Davis, stating her full conviction record and several aliases which can be used to trace her in other records.
Problems with the licences
Despite the potential of these records there are issues and limitations that researchers should be aware of. There is a lack of consistency in the content of licences. Some of the earliest examples have little more than the paper licence issued for prisoner release, and later licences (from the 1870 and 1880s in particular) can have vast amounts of material. The style and content of recorded information also changes over time. Whilst this can be useful for epistemological questions and examining the development of the administrative prison system, it does present a challenge when creating research questions relating to inmate experience across time. Whilst offering a great amount of detail about individuals and their lives inside (and often outside) prison, the documents were written from the perspective of the prison system. The emotional lives of inmates, their motivations, and experiences are not often explored. For example, the licences can help historians investigate the difficult and dangerous environment in which prisoners lived. Instances of prisoner violence and distress are very commonly recorded on prison offence forms. However, the forms do not record contextual exploration of why and how such behaviours occurred. Likewise, information relating to key issues such as mental illness are largely absent from these documents.
Nonetheless, the diverse range of documents available through the PCOM prison licence collection remain one of the best and most important sources for researching the men and women confined in Victorian convict institutions. The PCOM licences give us a rare insight into the minutia of daily prison life. Most importantly, these sources provide otherwise unavailable information about thousands of individuals serving time in prison between the 1850s and 1880s. Licence documents can prove essential for understanding the lives of prisoners and for collecting information which lets us trace how they arrived in prison, and what happened after their release.