1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Howard, John
HOWARD, JOHN (1726–1790), English philanthropist and prison reformer, was born at Hackney, probably on the 2nd of September 1726. His childhood was passed at Cardington, near Bedford, where his father, a retired merchant of independent means, had a small estate. He was apprenticed to a firm of grocers in the city of London, but on the death of his father in 1742, by which he inherited considerable property, he bought up his indenture, and devoted more than a year to foreign travel. Never constitutionally strong, he became, on his return to England, a confirmed invalid. Having been nursed through an acute illness by an attentive landlady, a widow of some fifty-three years of age, Howard, in return for her kindness, offered her marriage and they were united in 1752. Becoming a widower in less than three years, he determined to go abroad again, Portugal being his destination. The ship, however, in which he sailed was taken by a French privateer, the crew and passengers being carried to Brest, where they were treated with great severity. Howard was permitted to return to England on parole to negotiate an exchange, which he accomplished, as well as successfully representing the case of his fellow-captives. He now settled down on his Cardington property, interesting himself in meteorological observations. He was admitted a member of the Royal Society in 1756. In 1758 he married Henrietta, daughter of Edward Leeds, of Croxton, Cambridgeshire. He continued to lead a secluded life at Cardington and at Watcombe, Hampshire, busying himself in the construction of model cottages and the erection of schools. In 1765 his second wife died after giving birth to a son. In the following year Howard went for a prolonged foreign tour, from which he returned in 1770.
In 1773 the characteristic work of his life may be said to have begun by his acceptance of the office of high sheriff of Bedford. When the assizes were held he did not content himself with sitting out the trials in open court, his inquisitiveness and his benevolence alike impelled him to visit the gaol. Howard found it, like all the prisons of the time, wretchedly defective in its arrangements; but what chiefly shocked him was the circumstance that neither the gaoler nor his subordinates were salaried officers, but were dependent for their livelihood on fees from the prisoners. He found that some whom the juries had declared not guilty, others in whom the grand jury had not found even such appearance of guilt as would warrant a trial, others whose prosecutors had failed to appear, were frequently detained in prison for months after they had ceased to be in the position of accused parties, until they should have paid the fees of gaol delivery (see Introduction to The State of the Prisons of England and Wales). His prompt application to the justices of the county for a salary to the gaoler in lieu of his fees was met by a demand for a precedent in charging the county with an expense. This he undertook to find if such a thing existed. He went accordingly from county to county, and though he could find no precedent for charging the county with the wages of its servants he did find so many abuses in prison management that he determined to devote himself to their reform.
In 1774 he gave evidence before a committee of the House of Commons, and received the thanks of the house for “the humanity and zeal which have led him to visit the several gaols of this kingdom, and to communicate to the House the interesting observations which he has made on that subject.” Almost immediately an act was passed which provided for the liberation, free of all charges, of every prisoner against whom the grand jury failed to find a true bill, giving the gaoler a sum from the county rate in lieu of the abolished fees. This was followed in June by another requiring justices of the peace to see that the walls and ceilings of all prisons within their jurisdiction were scraped and whitewashed once a year at least; that the rooms were regularly cleaned and ventilated; that infirmaries were provided for the sick, and proper care taken to get them medical advice; that the naked should be clothed; that underground dungeons should be used as little as could be; and generally that such courses should be taken as would tend to restore and preserve the health of the prisoners. It was highly characteristic of the man that, having caused the provisions of the new legislation to be printed at his own private cost in large type, he sent a copy to every gaoler and warder in the kingdom, that no one should be able to plead ignorance of the law if detected in the violation of its provisions. He then set out upon a new tour of inspection, from which, however, he was brought home by the approach of a general election in September 1774. Standing as one of the anti-ministerial candidates for Bedford, he was returned by a narrow majority but was unseated after a scrutiny.
After a tour in Scotland and Ireland, he set out in April 1775 upon an extended tour through France, the Low Countries and Germany. At Paris he was at first denied access to the prisons; but, by recourse to an old and almost obsolete law of 1717, according to which any person wishing to distribute alms to the prisoners was to be admitted, he succeeded in inspecting the Bicêtre, the Force l’Évêque and most of the other places of confinement, the only important exception being the Bastille. Even in that case he succeeded in obtaining possession of a suppressed pamphlet, which he afterwards translated and published in English, to the unconcealed chagrin of the French authorities. At Ghent he examined with special interest the great Maison de Force, then recently erected, with its distinctive features—useful labour, in the profits of which the prisoners had a share, and complete separation of the inmates by night. At Amsterdam, as in Holland generally, he was much struck with the comparative absence of crime, a phenomenon which he attributed to the industrial and reformatory treatment there adopted. In Germany he found little that was useful and much that was repulsive; in Hanover and Osnabrück, under the rule of a British sovereign, he even found traces of torture. After a short tour in England (Nov. 1775 to May 1776), he again went abroad, extending his tour to several of the Swiss cantons. In 1777 appeared The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with Preliminary Observations, and an Account of some Foreign Prisons. One of the immediate results was the drafting a bill for the establishment of penitentiary houses, where by means of solitary imprisonment, accompanied by well-regulated labour and religious instruction, the object of reforming the criminal and inuring him to habits of industry might be pursued. New buildings were manifestly necessary; and Howard volunteered to go abroad again and collect plans. He first went to Amsterdam (April 1778), and carefully examined the “spin-houses” and “rasp-houses” for which that city was famous; next he traversed Prussia, Saxony, Bohemia, Austria and Italy, everywhere inspecting prisons, hospitals and workhouses, and carefully recording the merits and defects of each. The information he thus obtained having been placed at the service of parliament, a bill was passed for building two penitentiary houses, and Howard was appointed first supervisor, but he resigned the post before anything practical had been achieved. In 1780 he had published a quarto volume as an appendix (the first) to his State of Prisons; about the same time also he caused to be printed his translation of the suppressed French pamphlet on the Bastille; but on obtaining release from his employments at home his passion for accumulating statistics urged him to new and more extended continental tours, as far as to Denmark, Sweden and Russia in 1781, and to Spain and Portugal in 1783. The results of these journeys were embodied in 1784 in a second appendix, with the publication of which his direct labours in connexion with the subject of prison reform may be said to have ceased.
The five remaining years of his life were chiefly devoted to researches on the means for prevention of the plague, and for guarding against the propagation of contagious distempers in general. After an extended tour on the continent his researches seemed to be complete; and with a great accumulation of papers and memoranda, he was preparing to return homewards from Constantinople by Vienna, when it occurred to his scrupulous mind that he still lacked any personal experience of quarantine discipline. He returned to Smyrna, and, deliberately choosing a foul ship, took a passage to Venice. A protracted voyage of sixty days, during which an attack by pirates gave Howard an opportunity of manifesting his personal bravery, was followed by a weary term of confinement which enabled him to gain the experience he had desired. While imprisoned in the Venetian lazaretto he received the information that his only son, a youth of twenty-two years of age, had lost his reason and had been put under restraint. Returning hastily by Trieste and Vienna (where he had a long and singular interview with the emperor Joseph II.), he reached England in February 1787. His first care related to his domestic concerns; he then set out upon another journey of inspection of the prisons of the United Kingdom, at the same time busying himself in preparing for the press the results of his recent tour. The somewhat rambling work containing them was published in 1798 at Warrington, under the title An Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe: with various Papers relative to the Plague, together with further Observations on some Foreign Prisons and Hospitals, and additional Remarks on the present State of those in Great Britain and Ireland.
In July 1789 he embarked on what proved to be his last journey. Travelling overland to St Petersburg and Moscow, and so southwards, and visiting the principal military hospitals that lay on his route, he reached Kherson in November. In the hospitals of this place and of the immediate neighbourhood he found more than enough to occupy his attention while he awaited the means of transit to Constantinople. Towards the end of the year his medical advice was asked in the case of a young lady who was suffering under the camp fever then prevalent, and in attending her he himself took the disease, which terminated fatally on the 20th of January 1790. He was buried near the village of Dauphigny on the road to St Nicholas. There is a statue by Bacon to his memory in St Paul’s, London, and one at Bedford by A. Gilbert. In personal appearance Howard is described as having been short, thin and sallow—unprepossessing apart from the attraction of a penetrating eye and a benevolent smile.
Authorities.—Anecdotes of the Life and Character of John Howard, written by a Gentleman (1790); Aikin, View of the Character and Public Services of the late John Howard. (1792); Memoirs by J. Baldwin Brown (1818); T. Taylor (1836), Hepworth Dixon (1849), J. Field (1850), and J. Stoughton, Howard the Philanthropist (1884).
- The spinhouses were for women prisoners, who were set to spinning or other useful work; in the rasp-houses, the prisoners were employed in rasping wood.