Clay, John (1796-1858) (DNB00)

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CLAY, JOHN (1796–1858), prison chaplain, was the fifth son of Thomas Clay of Liverpool, ship and anchor smith, who died in 1821, by Mary, daughter of Ralph Lowe of Williamson Square, Liverpool, tanner. He was born in Liverpool on 10 May 1796, and after receiving a commercial education entered a merchant's office, but the failure of his master left him at the age of twenty-one without employment. He had, however, mechanical genius, and invented a chair for persons suffering with spinal complaints, and an improved bow and arrow which long bore his name. After spending a considerable time in self-education he was ordained as a literate by the Bishop of Chester on 11 Aug. 1821, and obtained a title for orders by acting as assistant-chaplain at Preston house of correction. On 22 Sept. 1822 he was ordained a priest, and soon after entered as a ten-years man at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, but did not keep the three terms required until 1834-5, when he took his degree as bachelor of divinity. He became chaplain of the gaol in 1823, and held the post for thirty-six years. His one ambition in life was the reformation and reclamation of prisoners, and to this end he incessantly laboured. His experience soon taught him that the indiscriminate mixture of prisoners was the great hindrance to any improvement in their moral condition, and his chief efforts were made in the direction of the silent and separate confinement of criminals. He befriended all who deserved help, and communicated with their friends. He stated that in eighteen years he was only once insulted by a prisoner. From 1824 he commenced issuing annual reports, and after a time entered so minutely into the details of prison management that his report became a thick octavo volume and made him an authority on criminal reform. In 1836 his annual reports were reprinted in a parliamentary blue book, and in a debate on education three years afterwards Lord John Russell quoted Clay's description of the ignorance of many of the prisoners. The chaplain in 1847 gave valuable evidence before Lord Brougham's committee of investigation into the question of the execution of the criminal laws. Lord Harrowby, then chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, offered him, when he was in pecuniary difficulties, the rectory of Castleford, Yorkshire, but with conscientious ideas about keeping curates there, he declined the gift. Ill-health obliged him to resign his chaplaincy in January 1858. He died at Leamington on 21 Nov. 1858. He married, 11 March 1828, Henrietta, third daughter of Mr. Fielding; she died at Preston on 28 June 1858.

Besides the prison reports already mentioned he was the author of:

  1. 'Twenty-five Sermons,' 1827.
  2. 'Burial Clubs and Infanticide in England. A Letter to W. Brown, esq., M.P.,' 1854.
  3. 'A Plain Address to Candidates for Confirmation,' 1866.

[W. L. Clay's Prison Chaplain, 1861, with portrait.]

G. C. B.