Mannheim Matters - Supplementary Material



The Background

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 longhand[1].


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 intellectual interests.

One of the several possible careers I explored in my youth was that of journalism[2]. 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[3]. The following week I was accepted by LSE[4] 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.[5]


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 Africa.[6] 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[7], 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[8]. From 1953 onwards, I had enjoyed the generous and enthusiastic support of Herman Mannheim. He was keen on my new idea.


The Permission

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 inmates[9]. 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[10]. I spent most of my time in the laundry working alongside the late James Hanratty[11] 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 Pentonville study.

The team had differing backgrounds. Pauline Morris[12] had been trained as a psychiatric social worker. Barbara Biely[13] 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.[14]


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[15] 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[16]. He telephoned Pentonville, and later that day I alone was allowed in.


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[17] 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’[18].

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[19] was scarce worth powder and shot. The work contains some very interesting historical material and copies on eBay are modestly priced.


‘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 hard labour[20] 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 Hobhouse[21] 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 homicide.


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[22] 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 impotent.  


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’[23].

A reviewer[24] 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, you know.”



April 2012

[1] I afterwards enrolled on a typing course at Pitmans Secretarial College.

[2] Robert Park, founder of the now largely forgotten Chicago school of Sociology in the 1920’s, started life as a newspaperman.

[3] “Don’t know your name here. Come to think of it, don’t know your school either.” Clearly guilty of some form of lèse majesté, I have also to admit that I completely screwed up the Latin test, an unfamiliar passage from Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura. Mea maxima culpa!

[4] I’m not sure whether today I would get in, even if I could afford the fees.

[5] Save to learn from Donald Macrae that he had a super-ego the size of Bush House Boys of my generation grew up in an atmosphere of hostility towards most things German. The imprint ‘DRGM’ on toys imported in the 1930’s was often translated as ‘Dirty rotten German make’.

[6] A decade later I was to travel to the Western Pacific as an adviser to the Colonial and Commonwealth Office on criminal justice.

[7] Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas. Georgics. 490

[8] It was Al Cohen who introduced me to the world of American prison music, notably that of Huddy Leadbetter, the Folkways Records company of Chicago, and the work of Alan Lomax in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

[9] Mannheim travelled to Maidstone with me for the planning visit. Attired in suit and lace up boots, he squeezed, uncomplainingly, into my draughty open MG. On a later occasion, Robert Merton was greatly excited to be a passenger in it.

[10]  Whose culinary skills I experienced one summer on the Isle of Wight, when as a cadet I had been encamped with the Welsh Guards.

[11] We shall never know the full story of the A6 murder. I still have doubts about Hanratty’s guilt.

[12] Later described by Richard Crossman in his Diaries as “a neat, bright, precise, dark-haired woman in navy blue, extraordinarily competent and sensible’.

[13] Barbara and I have remained close friends for more than fifty years.

[14] My first academic paper, a modest study of a New Orleans jazz club on a south London housing estate, had been published in 1952.

[15] Chrimes’ case went to the Court of Criminal Appeal but failed to succeed on an important point of law. [1959] 43 Cr App. R. at 149

[16] At the time, like Louis Blom-Cooper, I was retained by The Observer as regular correspondent. Fairn knew that it might well hit the Sunday papers.

[17] Report on the Prison Community Research Project 1958 -1961. Conducted by the London School of Economics. General Adviser Dr. Hermann Mannheim OBE.

[18] These at the time included such things as No.1 diet (bread and water), flogging and birching. Butler, as Home Secretary, routinely refused to approve these latter two, effectively outlawing them on a national basis.

[19] A sort of Bill of Indictment accompanied by no evidence.

[20] He would have almost certainly spent his time picking oakum, the fibres of tarred rope used for caulking the wooden decks of ships.

[21] Nephew of L.T. Hobhouse, the first Martin White Professor of Sociology at LSE.

[22] In Political Man. 1960

[23] A quality so important in the enduring work of my friend Tony Parker and that of folk musicologists like Alan Lomax and Ewan McColl.

[24] Of Crime and Criminal Justice since 1945.

To Do in London