John Howard

His early life

John Howard, after whom the Howard League is named, was born in 1726 in Hackney, East London. He was the son of a prosperous middle class family, and had a comfortable start to life. He was apprenticed to a London wholesale grocery firm, his income meant he could have an apartment, servants and two horses.

John Howard married twice. In 1753, he married his landlady Sarah Lordore, but she died only two years later. This sudden change in life again led him to travel, both for interest and to reflect upon his own future.

John Howard returned to Cardington in Bedfordshire and married Henrietta Leeds, who died in childbirth, leaving her husband to care for their young son John.

High Sheriff of Bedford

During this period John Howard became established as a country gentleman in Bedfordshire. He was a model landlord, a horticulturalist and practised the role of public servant he considered to be appropriate for his status. John Howard was a nonconformist, but despite this he was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, and with this title came the responsibility for the county gaol.

He was appalled by the conditions and human degradation he discovered. This spurred him to visit other prisons in England and then Europe in the search for humane prison conditions.

During the mid 1750s many gaols held religious dissenters and debtors, alongside common thieves and felons. Many of the debtors were respectable local tradesmen who could not be released from prison until money was raised to pay off their creditors.

John Howard criticised the gaoler of Bedford. Traditionally, once gaolers had been appointed they were left to manage their gaol in the fashion they chose and made their own living as best they could. This usually resulted in bribes, favours and profits, which were to the detriment of the prisoners under their care. Many prisoners were forced to pay for their period of incarceration and this meant paying for their bedding, food and other facilities. In 1753, for example, a prisoner was charged 2s 6d per a week for the sole use of bedding and sheets; the price to share bedding would have been 1s 3d a week, and to transport a prisoner to London the gaoler would have charged £6.

Tour of England and Wales and on to Europe

John Howard decided to tour English counties confident of finding a good example for Bedford gaol to follow. He was allowed to visit cells, dungeons and torture chambers, to talk to the gaolers, turnkeys and even the prisoners themselves. He was horrified to find that the malpractice in Bedford was common all over England and Wales.

In 1755 John Howard wrote: "Ely Gaol was the property of the Bishop and because of the insecurity of the old prison and the gaoler chained the victims down on their backs on the floor, across which several iron bars, with an iron collar with spikes about their necks and a heavy iron bar over their legs".

Many gaolers would not allow prisoners to leave the gaol, even if they had been found innocent, unless they or their families paid for their release. This often meant that poorer prisoners languished in gaol unnecessarily.

Having investigated prisons in England and Wales, John Howard felt compelled to visit Ireland and Scotland and then to almost every country in Europe, including Russia.

At a time when travel was usually uncomfortable and often dangerous, he travelled nearly eighty thousand kilometres on horseback and spent some £30,000 of his own money in his determination to improve prison conditions. He entered prisons in disguise in defiance of governments who feared the power of his pen. He was captured by pirates and held in France quelled a riot single-handed and more than earned John Wesley’s tribute to him as 'one of the greatest men in Europe'.

John Howard made seven large scale journeys between 1775 and 1790, the first two of which are described in his book The State of the Prisons In England and Wales. He sought to bring about reform through personal initiatives, by arousing the consciences of influential people and stirring them into action. He also visited gaolers personally to persuade them to comply with the minimal regulations that did exist. John Howard’s work had influence as far afield as Germany, America and Russia. He died in Kherson in the Ukraine of ‘gaol fever’, a form of typhus, in January 1790. A monument was erected there to mark his life and achievements, and was renovated in 1990 to commemorate the bi-centenary of his death.

John Howard’s role in the development of the international penal reform movement cannot be denied, and the importance of his life and work is reflected in this inscription on his statue in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

"This extraordinary man had the fortune to be honoured whilst living, In the manner which his virtues deserved: He received the thanks Of both house of the British and Irish Parliaments, For his eminent services rendered to his countryand to mankind"

Suggested reading:

Howard, J (1973) (first published 1777) The State of Prisons in England and Wales. Patterson Smith. (2 book set) £85.00