The Criminal Prisons of London was reforming journalist Henry Mayhew’s sequel to his monumental oral history of mercantile London life, London Labour and the London Poor (1861). Like that book, much of the content here is direct oral testimony from prisoners, guards and wardens – preserving as much as possible the pronunciation and dialect inflections of each speaker.
The Criminal Prisons of London has a much more obvious analytical focus than the earlier work, however. Drawing on his experience as a journalist, and the research skills of his co-author John Binny, Mayhew produces a lengthy investigation into all aspects of the criminal justice system in Britain – with detailed statistics on arrests and convictions, descriptions of disciplinary methods in prisons, and how criminals are classified in order to be sent into a particular form of custody. He concluded that all London prisons were lacking in basic human necessities, but that some were more lacking than others.
A sometime editor of the satirical magazine Punch, Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) was born into a conservative family, but was inspired into reforming zeal in 1849 by his experience reporting on the devastating effects on the poor of a cholera outbreak in Bermondsey, South London.