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March 20, 1812: Penitentiary Bill and Bentham`s Panopticon


On March 20, 1812, the House of Commons, sitting in committee, discussed a Penitentiary House Bill derived, in part, from Jeremy Bentham's plan for a prison based on his panopticon system. Bentham had been trying to interest various governments in his plans for quite some time. The idea behind the panopticon was to construct a building or institution that would allow an observer at the center to observe all the persons or inmates in the building without being seen. Bentham believed that the principle of the panopticon had general application and could be used in hospitals, schools and especially prisons. In 1799, Bentham had been able the get the government to help him purchase land in Millbank, Pimlico, London to build such a penitentiary. Thereafter, various changes in government resulted in nothing much being done until 1811-12 when the Tory government again considered a new national penitentiary. A bill was proposed and dealt with on March 20, 1812 where opposition to some aspects of Bentham's plan were articulated. Bentham never did get his panopticon prison though a national prison was built on the Millbank site. Bentham was paid some £23,000 and the title to the land that he had purchased was transferred to the Crown in October, 1813. For more information on Bentham see here


In 1812, imprisonment was becoming the dominant means of punishing crime. This was partly based on the view that the alternative punishment of transportation was not effective. The American Revolution also meant that one of the main destinations for prisoners was lost to Britain. Transportation to Australia continued but this involved considerable more cost than the had been the case with transportation across the Atlantic. Also important was a movement, exemplified in such writings as those of Beccaria and Howard, that emphasized that imprisonment could lead to the reform of offenders together with a growing disapproval of the `spectacle of violence` in all its forms from capital punishment, the pillory or flogging to the entertainment of animal blood sports [1]. The interaction of these forces is complex and beyond a short post. J.M. Beattie in his masterful work, Crime and the Courts in England, 1660-1800, at page 614 summarizes it in this way:
It seems reasonable to think that the decline of physical violence as a penal weapon proceeded from the persuasion on the one hand that imprisonment under the right conditions would be a more effective means of encouraging law-abiding behavior than scourging offenders in public, and on the rejection of physical violence as an acceptable means of punishment, a rejection that reflects a larger change in sentiment in society regarding the legitimacy and acceptability of violence itself...punishment ceased to be mounted with an eye to those who watched, and was concentrated (at least in intention) single-mindedly on the prisoner in order to reform and rehabilitate him and send him back to the world a new man.                   
The debate of March 20, 1812 is reproduce below.
PENITENTIARY HOUSE BILL.

HC Deb 20 March 1812 vol 22 cc101-3 101

On the motion for going into a Committee on this Bill,

Mr. Kenrick moved an instruction to the Committee, that provision should be made, that persons convicted of felony, without benefit of clergy, should be kept to hard labour.


Mr. Holford rose, in consequence of in-formation he had received, that it was in-tended to oppose the principle of the Bill. He entered into a minute examination of the plan of Mr. Bentham, which, he contended, was wholly inadequate to the object; and he drew a comparison between it and the scheme he had the honour of proposing to the House this session. He dwelt particularly on the benefits likely to result from the management being placed in the hands of a committee, instead of an individual controulable only by the court of King's-bench.


Sir S. Romilly lamented that the subject should be discussed in so thin a House. One of his principal objections to the plan now suggested had been removed, namely, that the institution was calculated to receive so few offenders. Still, however, the objects to which it was to apply were too much restricted, as criminals convicted in London and Middlesex were only to be 102 received. He admitted that the management being left to a committee was preferable, but still the public ought to possess a full right of inspection and controul. He would not now enter fully into Mr. Bentham's plan, but it was to be remembered, that lightly as it had been spoken of, it had on mature deliberation been approved of by Mr. Pitt and by lord Melville. He had only recommended the plan of Mr. Bentham to the consideration of the House on account of the advantages it had over other plans of a similar nature, on account of its superior economy, and the prospect it held out of furnishing the convicts with employment when the term of their imprisonment expired. In support of the utility of prisons being subjected to public inspection, he referred to a recent work of Mr. Neild's, which disclosed practices on the part of gaolers and others, that could not take place if the public eye had been upon them; for he believed in every case, that there were no inspectors or guardians so good as the public themselves. With regard to the erection of Penitentiary Houses, he believed he might advert to the warm and zealous support with which such a plan had been maintained by Mr. Pitt and Mr. Dundas; at least if he was wrong, he saw a right hon. gentleman in his place who could set him right. He wished that the Bill might not be committed that evening, on account of the thinness of the House, and that members might have an opportunity of fully possessing themselves of its object; and he should therefore move as an amendment, that the House should go into a Committee upon it on Wednesday the 15th of April.


Mr. Long observed, in reply to the reference of his hon. and learned friend, that certainly no person was more anxious than Mr. Pitt, that some plan similar to that now proposed, should be adopted. Mr. Dundas was also of the same opinion, but he was not prepared to say that they were particularly attached to Mr. Bentham's plan, (which though it had many good parts, and contained much that might be adopted) it was impossible any person could wholly approve, who had attentively examined it.

Mr. Abercromby spoke in favour of Mr. Bentham's plan, though he had never recommended its unqualified adoption. He would vote with his hon. and learned friend against proceeding farther that night, and hoped he would take the sense of the House on the subject.


Mr. Secretary Ryder stated his objections to various parts of Mr. Bentham's plan. He strongly opposed the amendment, on account of the delay it would occasion. He was desirous of making the plan as perfect as possible; but he could see no advantage likely to result from postponing the Committee on the Bill, as he conceived the thinness of the House was to be in a great measure ascribed to a feeling on the part of the members absent, that to attend on this occasion was unnecessary.

Mr. Wilberforce gave his testimony to the value of Mr. Bentham's plan, not indeed without amendments, which it had ever courted, and could not, therefore, be considered as pretending to perfection. He particularly eulogised that part of it which provided for the restoration of the criminal to society in a manner which would not, as it were, compel him to a renewal of his vicious courses. He trusted this system would put an end to transportation, except for life, to those whom it was expedient to banish altogether from their countrymen.

Mr. Bathurst was against any further postponement. It had appeared, from the report of the Committee, that the situation of the felons in the several gaols of the metropolis called for the most prompt attention. He objected to the plan of making the prisoners a public spectacle, which, in his opinion, had a tendency to defeat the main object, namely, that of affording them every opportunity of solitary reflection upon the nature of their offences, and the justice of their punishment.

Mr. C. Adams supported the amendment, on the ground of the absence of many hon. and legal members on the assizes, whose opinions it would be satisfactory to receive on this question.

Mr. W. Smith saw no inconvenience in putting it off for so short a period as that proposed by his hon. and learned friend.


The House divided on the amendment.

For the Amendment 18

Against it 35

Majority 17

The House then resolved itself into a Committee, in which the various clauses of the Bill underwent a discussion.

The House having resumed, the report was ordered to be received on Monday.
1.  J.M. Beattie,  Crime and the Courts in England1660-1800 (New York: Princeton University Press) at pages 554-558, 560-565. 

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