Pentonville: A Sociological Study of an English Prison
was published by Routledge in 1963. It cost £2.10s (£2.50) and is
still available though at a price of around £200. The work was
carried out by three people: Pauline Morris and I did the fieldwork,
in her case about 80% of it. The systematic classification of data
and primary analysis derived from our field notes and interviews was
done by Barbara Biely. The text of the book was written by me in
Looking back over the half century since its appearance my thoughts
about it are varied. Did it have any effect by way of bringing about
changes in the prison system generally or prison regimes in
particular? I suspect not. Did it have any consequences for academic
research? I really have no idea.
So was it worth it? To answer that question, one needs to place the
work in a personal context, more specifically, that of my
One of the several possible careers I explored in my youth was that
In May 1945 I travelled into central London and made notes on the
wild celebrations of VE Day, later written up in the School
Magazine. In the bleak winter of 1947 I tramped from one end of
Fleet Street to the other in a vain attempt to get a job. Little did
I imagine that in a few years I would be writing for a Sunday
broadsheet besides working in radio and television!
In 1949, when I applied to a Cambridge college in the hope of
reading history or English, the Senior Tutor, not without sarcasm,
made me aware that my sort were not welcome. It was my first
bruising experience of the symbiosis of power, privilege and class.
The following week I was accepted by LSE
to read sociology, though since I chose to specialise in social
anthropology I can hardly call myself a proper sociologist. As a
Francophile I was attracted to Durkheim. Conversely, knowing no
German, I never did discover much about Weber.
Those who taught anthropology at the School in those days had almost
all been pupils of Malinowski, and functionalism of the Durkheimian
variety was a current that ran strongly through much of their
thinking. So, at an early and impressionable age and under the
tutelage of such world-class scholars as Edmund Leach, Raymond Firth
and Isaac Schapera, I became immersed in the political systems of
Highland Burma, the culture of the Trobriands and Tikopia, Samoa and
New Guinea, and the legal institutions of the Tswana of Southern
Recruited as her chauffeur during a transport strike, I once had a
memorable day long ‘one to one tutorial’ with the great Margaret
Mead. An added bonus was to have one’s mind opened to the treasures
of European thought, not least through the presence of so many
academic refugees from Nazi persecution, including Mannheim. For a
young man inspired by the School’s Vergilian motto,
it was indeed, a Golden Time.
The publication of The Criminal Area was largely the product
of my initial fascination with Chicago and its criminals and the
work of the 19th Century French social geographer André
Guerry. Amazingly, the book remains in print and is still selling!.
But by 1958 it was time to move on.
By now I was a Prison Visitor to a number of long-term prisoners at
Wormwood Scrubs, mostly lifers who had been reprieved from the
gallows. Under the progressively benevolent regime of its Governor,
Gilbert Hair, they were able to tend small allotment gardens under
the shadow of the wall. So my visits were not always to cells, but
sometimes outside; one man worked as a stoker in the prison boiler
room, and I often used to visit him there as he shovelled the coke.
Then came an idea. Never mind the exchange of necklaces and arm
shells in the Trobriands, coming of age in Samoa, or growing up in
New Guinea, how about the world of an English prison? The eureka
moment was the publication by Gresham Sykes of his Society of
Captives and I was off to America. Although I never did meet up
with Sykes, I found Trenton in New Jersey, numerous other prisons
and in the process Donald Cressey and Albert Cohen.
From 1953 onwards, I had enjoyed the generous and enthusiastic
support of Herman Mannheim. He was keen on my new idea.
In 1958, when Pentonville was conceived, prisons in England
and Wales were run by the Prison Commission, a body established in
1877 to replace the administrative dog’s breakfast of local prisons
run by magistrates and convict prisons run by central government.
The Chairman at that time was a distinguished civil servant, Sir
Arthur Petersen. Petersen and his colleagues, notably Duncan Fairn,
were fascinated by the idea.
More than that, they arranged for me to spend six weeks in Maidstone,
then a Corrective Training prison, sharing the daily routine of the
One gets used to waking up and finding the light is coming through a
barred window but the food, I discovered, could be even worse than
that produced by the Army Catering Corps.
I spent most of my time in the laundry working alongside the late
and where I learned how to iron shirts to a professional standard.
The Maidstone material has never been published and the notes are
long gone, but they provided the groundwork for the design of the
The team had differing backgrounds. Pauline Morris
had been trained as a psychiatric social worker. Barbara Biely
was a brilliant young social psychologist from British Columbia,
while I still had little more than an untested qualification in
social anthropology and the eye of a journalist manqué to
find my way.
We formed an easy relationship with the incoming Governor, David
Waddilove, who had been recruited by Alexander Patterson in the
1930’s and had, hitherto, spent his entire career in the Borstal
system. He was to have the task of overseeing the hangings, in a
matter of weeks, of Joseph Chrimes
and Ronald Marwood; the first in Pentonville for five years.
For different reasons, neither execution went smoothly. While I have
subsequently viewed the apparatus of judicial killing in many parts
of the world, their squalid gallows sheds, gas chambers and electric
chairs, I remember still, the deathly silence that enveloped
Pentonville at around 9.a.m. on April 24th, 1959, the
time when Chrimes was to go. All around the prison everyone glanced
at clocks and watches, all sharing a mental vision of that moment
when the trapdoor would bang open, and of a lifeless body slowly
gyrating in the pit below until at last the prison doctor had
certified death. Later that morning I found the Governor sitting in
his office, utterly dejected. He had witnessed judicial killing for
the first time. Then, on May 8th, Ronald Marwood was
hanged for the murder of PC Raymond Summers.
On the morning of the execution the research team was prevented from
entering the prison. I found this unacceptable, not least since no
good reason had been given, other than “Governor’s orders”. Petersen
was not available, but I discovered that Fairn was that day taking
the Home Secretary, Rab Butler, round Lewes prison. By the time I
was able to contact Fairn he was about to have lunch with his guest,
but as always, very helpful, he listened to what I had to say.
Unless we could be allowed in, I would pull the whole research.
He telephoned Pentonville, and later that day I alone was allowed
Why then, the exclusion? On the morning of execution over 1000 angry
and noisy people had gathered outside the prison - Marwood was a
local boy - and were dispersed by numerous mounted police. More
importantly, there had been considerable disorder inside the prison
on the night before. Prisoners were eager to furnish me with details
although a Home Office press release had already suggested that
reports of disturbances in the prison were unfounded. Over the
coming days more accounts from both inmates and prison staff came to
light. Nor did the Governor at any time suggest that 7th
May had been a day of other than serious disorder. My feeling was
that Waddilove, a man of immense humanity and sensitivity, was
nearing the end of his tether and thought the prison unsafe. He was
not the sort of man to resort to seek to cover things up.
Be that as it may, the problem of the ‘riot’ was not to go away.
Before publication, the final report of the research
was submitted to the Prison Commissioners for approval and
confirmation of compliance with the Official Secrets Acts. Chapter
14 entitled ‘the Prison under Stress’ dealt with the events
surrounding the executions of Chrimes and Marwood. I was summoned to
Petersen’s private office. He clearly was pleased with the report,
but there was a problem. You can’t present the details and analyse
an event that never was! Never mind that no fewer than 14 inmates
had been brought before the Visiting Magistrates for punishment.
One, still in bandages, appeared before them, medically certified as
‘fit all punishments’.
If I had put the Commissioners in check by threatening to pull the
research if I was not admitted on 8th April 1959 it was
they who now threatened checkmate by the prospect of a prosecution
under the Official Secrets Acts!
In reality, it was nothing like so malign. Petersen gave the
impression that he had not been pleased by the Press release; after
all, what useful purpose could it serve when matters had been quite
speedily brought under control? Of the old school of senior civil
servants to whom probity was important and ‘spin’ distasteful, he
put his dilemma to me: how was he going to draft the answer to the
Parliamentary Question that sought to discover how the Home Office
and Prison Commission had authorised publication of a report that
analysed an event of which it had been said earlier that it had
never taken place?
In the event, there was no real choice. To have flushed all that
work and effort down the drain for the sake of one issue would have
been a self-indulgent waste of the hard work of three people.
The reaction to publication
The tabloids had a brief field day. The idea of a woman spending her
time with the cons in a grim London prison was what interested them.
Then the circus and its photographers moved on and all was gone.
Not so the reactions of the prison staff, many of whom had been
enthusiastic in their co-operation with the research. But among
those who thought the account of life in the prison biased, unfair,
or even simply untrue, some reacted with sharp hostility. The
Prison Officers Magazine (published by the Prison Officers
Association) printed some comments sufficiently serious to prompt my
consulting a leading firm of libel solicitors. The matter was
resolved amicably by the magazine publishing a rejoinder. A little
later there was a turn for the worse when I received an advance copy
of a book that made what I was advised were more seriously damaging
statements. This time the solicitors obtained a temporary injunction
against any further printing, publication or distribution. The
respondents agreed, out of court, to excise or modify the passages
concerned and their book was eventually published. That seemed to be
the end of that.
But old bones, though long buried, are wont to re-surface from time
to time and in the summer of 2000, some 37 years after the
publication of the book, there landed in my post box Peerless,
Priceless Pentonville: 160 Years of History, an 85 page
paperback by R. S. Duncan, B.Sc. (Econ). It is a history of the
prison, written with the benefit of access to many of its records
and its preface notes, inter alia
‘This is produced as a tribute to the staff of Pentonville past,
present and future’.
The preceding paragraph – or should it be epitaph? – is,
intriguingly, entirely devoted to the Morris study. Thus:
‘The Morris’s (sic!) wrote an academic study of Pentonville
in 1963. A sociological classic of its time. I, too, studied
sociology, but I am also a governor and had the advantage of reading
original recordings by previous governors dating back to 1842. I can
state categorically that the work by the Morris’s (again!)
has major shortcomings and totally fails to capture either the
significance or the spirit of Pentonville’.
Well, I thought, that’s me told, good and proper!
Merci! I could, of course, have made rejoinder, but
reflected that after 37 years such criticism
was scarce worth powder and shot. The work contains some very
interesting historical material and copies on eBay are modestly
‘A la recherche de temps perdu’ (with apologies to Proust)
Was the study worth doing? For me, personally, very much so. When I
was still quite a small boy, about seven I would think, my father
was visited by a man of unusually gaunt appearance. When he left, I
asked about him. My father replied that he had just done six months
in Pentonville for receiving a stolen gold watch. I asked what hard
labour was and where Pentonville was located, so on a Geographia map
spread out on the floor, we identified all the London prisons.
It was again from my radically disposed father, a life-long opponent
of capital punishment, that I came to learn of the trial and hanging
in 1922 of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters. His bones still
lie within Pentonville’s walls in a plot known as Crippen’s Grass.
When Holloway was rebuilt, hers were re-interred with decency in the
woodland cemetery at Brookwood. Much later I came across Stephen
and Fenner Brockway’s book English Prisons Today, published
(also in 1922) by the Labour Research Department in the face of
threats of prosecution by the Home Office.
For me, the incarceration of human beings, never mind putting them
to death, has always been intensely problematic. There are more
imaginative, and positive ways, of dealing with crime, even
R S Duncan was generous in describing Pentonville as a
classic of its time. So too, of their time, were my 1930’s ‘T’ type
open MG’s. But classic studies, if such they be, are as replete with
limitations as classic cars. Their qualities are co-existent with,
not wholly contingent upon, their shortcomings or otherwise.
It is often said that age brings in its train a mellowing of the
enthusiasms of youth. In that regard I proclaim myself a deviant.
Indeed, looking over my writings of fifty years ago I wonder that I
could have thought myself a radical at all.
For the gallows we have substituted the inflexible sentence of
mandatory life, its tariffs now governed by Schedule 21 of the
Criminal Justice Act 2003. If ever a law reflected the spirit of
what Seymour Martin Lipset
called ‘working class authoritarianism’ this must be such.
In the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s, I thought prisons in England to
be appalling places, albeit that many enlightened staff were doing
their best to make them otherwise. I see them now as having
degenerated beyond what I would have thought possible. We have seen
the return of a prison hulk – HMP Weare – now thankfully out of
service, and a new version of the auction of the office of gaoler.
The idea of competitive tendering for prison services was something
of which the 19th Century prison reformers were anxious
to be rid. In these things I find myself both more radical and more
In all honesty, I must admit to never having been a truly objective
social scientist. Indeed, I am scarcely a proper sociologist. Nor
have I ever sought to conceal either my axe or my grinding wheel.
Yet just as Pilate asked “What is truth?” one might as readily ask,
“What is objectivity?” In the pages of Pentonville, I simply
endeavoured to ‘tell it like it was’.
once identified me a storyteller, a description with which I was not
displeased, though Pentonville is hardly a bedtime read, not
least on account of its ponderous Blue Book style. And stories are
not always comfortable places. Were I – heaven forefend - to
re-write it today, it would be infinitely more polemical. But then
perhaps, my work in this, as elsewhere, has been limited by what the
late Professor Glass so often delighted in dismissing as ‘mere
journalism’. At least I hope it escapes a favorite comment of an
earlier Martin White Professor of Sociology, Morris Ginsberg,
encapsulated in the infinitely more pejorative epithet: “Thin,