Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Howard, John (1726?-1790)

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HOWARD, JOHN (1726?–1790), philanthropist, was born most probably in Hackney on 2 Sept. 1726. There is some uncertainty both as to the date and the place of his birth, but in default of absolute proof to the contrary the inscription on his monument in St. Paul's is likely to be correct. His father, John Howard, was a partner in an upholstery and carpet business near Long Lane. His mother, whose maiden name was Cholmley, died soon after his birth. Young Howard, who was a sickly child, spent his early days at Cardington, some three miles from Bedford, where his father had a small property. He was sent to a school at Hertford, kept by one John Worsley, the author of several school books and a translation of the New Testament. There he remained seven years and 'left it not fairly taught one thing.' After being for a short time at Newington Green, under the tuition of John Eames [q. v.] Howard was apprenticed to the firm of Newnham & Shepley, wholesale grocers, in Watling Street. His father died in September 1742, leaving his two children fairly well off, and Howard, obtaining a release from his indentures, went for a tour on the continent. After his return to England he resided at Stoke Newington, where he suffered much from nervous fever, and was obliged to adopt a rigorous regimen. When about twenty-five years of age he married his landlady, Sarah Loidore (or Lardeau), an elderly widow of fifty-two. He is said to have taken this step under a conscientious sense of obligation to the lady, and as some sort of return for the great care with which she had nursed him through his long illness. Their married life was short, for she died on 10 Nov. 1755, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary's, Whitechapel. After his wife's death Howard left Stoke Newington and took lodgings in St. Paul's Churchyard. In 1756 he started for Portugal, but the Hanover, the Lisbon packet on which he sailed, was captured by a French privateer. The crew and the passengers were carried prisoners to France, where they suffered great privations. Returning to England on parole he successfully negotiated an exchange for himself, and having detailed to the commissioners of sick and wounded seamen the sufferings of his fellow-prisoners, their release was obtained from the French government. In May 1756 Howard was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and about this time took up his residence at Cardington, Bedfordshire, which remained his principal home during the rest of his life.

On 25 April 1758 he married Henrietta, daughter of Edward Leeds of Croxton, Cambridgeshire, serjeant-at-law. Previously to his second marriage Howard, with commendable caution, appears to have made an agreement with the lady 'that to prevent altercations about those little matters which he had observed to be the chief grounds of uneasiness in families, he should always decide' (Dr. Brown, Memoirs, p. 55). Howard now busied himself in erecting model cottages on his Cardington property, providing elementary education for the children of all sects, and encouraging the individual industry of the villagers. For the benefit of his wife's health he subsequently purchased a house at Watcombe, near Lymington, where they lived for two or three years; but, finding the place unsuitable, they returned to Cardington, where his second wife died on 31 March 1765, having given birth to a son four days previously. In the following year, his health having again broken down, he visited Bath. In 1767 he made a short excursion through Holland with his brother-in-law, and in the autumn of 1769 again went on the continent, visiting France, Switzerland, Holland, Italy, and Germany. After his return in the autumn of the following year he occupied some time in travelling through Wales and the south of Ireland, and was afterwards laid up at Cardington with an attack of ague, which lasted nine months, and rekindled his zeal in promoting sanitary improvements in the village.

On 8 Feb. 1773 Howard was appointed high sheriff of Bedfordshire (London Gazettes, 1773, No. 11325). Though a dissenter he accepted the office in spite of the Test Act, and though he does not appear to have conformed for the occasion, no legal proceedings were taken against him. Howard now commenced his career as a prison reformer. In his official capacity the defective arrangements of the prisons and the intolerable distress of the prisoners were brought immediately under his notice. Shocked at discovering that persons who had been declared not guilty, or against whom the grand jury had failed to find a true bill, or even those whose prosecutors had failed to appear, were confined in gaol until certain fees were paid to the gaoler, Howard suggested to the Bedfordshire justices that the gaoler should be paid by a salary in lieu of fees. The justices replied by asking for a precedent for charging the county with the expense. Howard accordingly rode into the neighbouring counties in order to find one, but failed to discover a single case in which a gaoler was paid by a fixed salary. The many abuses which he unearthed determined him to continue his investigations, and he left few of the county gaols unvisited. He then resolved to inspect the bridewells, and for that purpose travelled again over the country, examining the houses of correction, the city and town gaols, and paying particular attention to the ravages made among the prisoners by gaol fever and small-pox (Introduction to The State of the Prisons in England and Wales). On 4 March 1774 he gave evidence before the House of Commons in committee, and was afterwards called to the bar to receive 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 he has made on that subject’ (Journals of the House of Commons, xxxiv. 535). Subsequently, in the same session, two bills were passed, one for the abolition of gaolers' fees (14 Geo. III, c. 20), and the other for improving the sanitary state of prisons and the better preservation of the health of the prisoners (14 Geo. III, c. 59). Though copies of these acts were printed at Howard's expense, and sent by him to the keeper of every county gaol in England, their provisions were for the most part evaded. At the general election in the following October Howard unsuccessfully contested the Dorough of Bedford in the opposition interest, and though his colleague, Samuel Whitbread, obtained one of the seats on petition, Howard failed to establish his claim to the other, and his opponent, Sir William Wake, was declared duly elected (Journals of the House of Commons, xxxv. 22, 194, 220, 221, 222).

Meanwhile Howard continued his self imposed task of inspecting prisons, and, after his return from a visit to Scotland and Ireland in the spring of 1775, started for France, and visited the principal prisons of Paris. He failed, however, to get into the Bastille, ‘though he knocked hard at the outer gate, and immediately went forward through the guard to the drawbridge before the entrance of the castle’ (State of the Prisons, &c., 4th edit., p.176). From France he went on a tour of inspection through Holland, Flanders, and Germany, and returned to England in July. In November of this year he set out on his second general inspection of the English gaols, and in May 1776 revisited the continent, spending some time in Switzerland. Upon his return he completed his second inspection of the English gaols. Having got all his materials together for the book which he had originally intended to publish in the spring of 1775, Howard retired to Warrington in 1777, where his ‘State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with Preliminary Observations, and an Account of some Foreign Prisons’ was at length published, Warrington, 4to. In August of this year his only sister died, leaving him her fortune and her house in Great Ormond Street. In 1778 he was examined before a select committee of the House of Commons appointed to inquire into the working of the hulk system established by 16 Geo. III, c. 43 (Journals of the House of Commons, xxxvi. 926, 928-30) . Convinced that vessels were less suitable for the confinement of prisoners than buildings, it was urged by Sir William Blackstone and others that places of confinement similar to the Rasp and Spin-Houses of Holland should be erected. Howard therefore set off again (18 April) for the continent to collect further information on the subject. At Amsterdam he met with a serious accident, but upon his recovery visited Prussia, Saxony, Bohemia, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and France, returning to England at the close of the year. In 1779 an act was passed empowering the erection of two penitentiary houses under the superintendence of three supervisors (19 Geo. III, c. 74, sec. 5). Howard, Fothergill, and Whatley, the treasurer of the Foundling Hospital, were appointed to carry out the experiment. They were, however, unable to agree about the site, and Fothergill dying in December 1780, Howard shortly afterwards sent in his resignation to Lord Bathurst (Brown, Memoirs, pp. 309-10). At the beginning of 1780 Howard published an 'Appendix to the State of Prisons in England and Wales … containing a farther Account of Foreign Prisons and Hospitals, with additional Remarks on the Prisons of this Country,' Warrington, 4to. In the same year he brought out a cheaper edition of his 'State of the Prisons,' Warrington, 8vo, with which the new matter in the 'Appendix' was incorporated, and also published ' Historical Remarks and Anecdotes on the Castle of the Bastille. Translated from the French, published in 1774,' London, 8vo, a second edition of which appeared in 1784, London, 8vo. In the 'advertisement' to the translation Howard states that the sale of the original pamphlet had been strictly prohibited in France, and that he had, 'not without some hazard, brought it to England,' but that his object would be fully satisfied if the translation should 'in any degree tend to increase the attachment and reverence of Englishmen to the genuine principles of their excellent constitution.' During his continental tour, which began in May and ended in December 1781, Howard visited Denmark, Sweden, and Russia. In January 1782 he commenced his third general inspection of English prisons, and visited both Scotland and Ireland. In May of this year he gave evidence before a committee of the Irish House of Commons appointed to inquire into the state of the Irish gaols, and in the same year was created by diploma an honorary LL.D. of the university of Dublin (Register, 31 May 1782). In 1783 he inspected the penal and charitable institutions of Spain and Portugal, and made a fifth journey to Ireland. In 1784 he produced a second edition of his 'Appendix to the State of Prisons,' &c., Warrington, 4to, embodying the results of his further investigations both at home and abroad, the whole of which were also added to the third edition of his complete work, which was issued this year, Warrington, 4to. He republished at the same time a large sheet containing the criminal statistics of the Old Bailey sessions from 1749 to 1771, compiled by Sir S. T. Janssen, and originally published in 1772.

In 1785 Howard determined to investigate the condition of the lazarettos, and the best means for the prevention of the plague. He set out on his expedition in November, and though permission to visit the lazaretto at Marseilles was refused him by the French government, he managed to inspect it in spite of the spies and the police. In order to obtain access to the Toulon arsenal he adopted the disguise of a fashionable Parisian. He afterwards visited Nice, Genoa, Leghorn, Pisa, Florence, Rome, and Naples. From Naples he proceeded to Malta, Zante, Smyrna, and Constantinople. Resolving to subject himself to the discipline of quarantine for the sake of verifying the information which he had obtained, Howard returned to Smyrna, where he purposely chose a vessel bound for Venice with a foul bill of health. After leaving Modon they had a smart skirmish with a Tunisian privateer, during which 'one of our cannon charged with spike-nails having accidentally done great execution, the privateer immediately, to our great joy, hoisted its sails and made off' (An Account of the principal Lazarettos, &c., p.22 n.) On reaching Venice Howard had to submit to quarantine, and was confined in two lazarettos for forty-two days. While there he heard with much distress of the subscription list which had been opened for the erection of a statue in commemoration of his services (Gent. Mag. 1786, pt. i. pp. 359-61, 447, pt. ii. passim), and of the mental derangement of his only child. Howard returned to England by way of Trieste and Vienna, having had at the latter place 'the honour of near two hours' conversation in private with the emperor.' In consequence of Howard's strong expressions of disapproval the committee of the 'Howardian Fund' (which had already amounted to over 1,500l.) were compelled to abandon their scheme during his lifetime. In March 1787 he commenced his fourth and final inspection of the English gaols, and in 1789 published '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,' Warrington, 1789, 4to; 2nd ed. 1791, 4to. In the same year he privately printed the 'Edict of the Grand Duke of Tuscany for the Reform of Criminal Law in his Dominions; translated from the Italian; together with the original,' Warrington, 1789, 8vo.

In July 1789 Howard set out on his last journey, and visited Holland, Germany, Prussia, Livonia, and Russia. The defective state of the Russian military hospitals attracted a great deal of his attention, and hearing at Moscow of the sickly state of the Russian army on the confines of Turkey, he proceeded to Kherson in Southern Russia, where he died, on 20 Jan. 1790, of camp fever caught while in attendance on a young lady who had been stricken down with the complaint. Howard was buried in a walled field at Dophinovka (now known as Stepanovka), six versts north of Kherson. His funeral was attended by a large concourse of people. A brick pyramid was built over his grave (Clarke, Travels, 1816, ii. 301, 338-49), and a handsome cenotaph of white freestone, with a Russian inscription, was erected to his memory at Kherson (Henderson, Biblical Researches, 1826, p. 284). His death was announced in the 'London Gazette' (1790, p. 174), a unique honour for a civilian, and his statue, executed by Bacon, was erected by public subscription in St. Paul's. It stands on the left side of the choir, and was the first statue admitted to the cathedral (Milman, Annals of St. Paul's Cathedral, 1869, pp. 480-1). The inscription on the pedestal was written by Samuel Whitbread. Another inscription for some other monument to Howard was written by Cowper (Field, Correspondence of John Howard, pp. 202-4). In 1890 a public subscription was opened for the erection of a Howard centenary memorial at Bedford.

Howard was a man of deeply religious feelings, with an observant mind and methodical habits. Though he was not gifted with any brilliant talents, he possessed a powerful will, great pertinacity of purpose, and remarkable powers of endurance. In personal appearance he was short and thin, with a sallow complexion, prominent features, and a resolute expression. He was both a teetotaller and a vegetarian, simple in his tastes, plain and neat in his dress, and retiring in his habits. From the day he entered upon the duties of high sheriff of Bedfordshire he devoted himself entirely to his philanthropic labours. He worked unaided either by the state or by charitable institutions. Constituting himself inspector of prisons at home and abroad, he travelled upwards of fifty thousand miles, notebook in hand, visiting prisons, hospitals, lazarettos, schools, and workhouses, interrogating the authorities, counting the steps, measuring the rooms, taking copies of the regulations, and testing the supplies. He is said to have spent as much as 30,000l. of his own fortune in the work, and to have refused an offer of assistance from the government. Though Carlyle, in his essay on 'Model Prisons,' calls Howard 'the innocent cause … of the Benevolent-Platform Fever' (Collected Works, lib. edit. xix. 79), Howard himself was no sentimentalist, and while he insisted that justice should be blended with humanity, he never forgot to aim at the reformation of the prisoner. The courses of His journeys were frequently erratic, and are difficult to follow. As a writer Howard had little literary ability, and was assisted in the preparation of his two principal works by Richard Densham, Dr. Richard Price, and Dr. Aikin. The almost incredible abuses which were exposed in the 'State of the Prisons' gave the first impulse to a general desire for an improvement in the construction and discipline of our prisons. Though his evangelical opinions were intense, Howard was singularly free from religious bigotry, and though an independent himself, both his wives were churchwomen. His behaviour was at times eccentric, and his stern views of duty frequently prevented him from being a very sociable companion. His theory of family discipline was severe in the extreme, but except during the first eight years of his son's life, Howard had little opportunity of inculcating his notions of filial obedience either harshly or otherwise. The story that Howard, through his cruelty, drove his child into insanity is absolutely untrue, but the charge that he neglected the personal superintendence of his child's education cannot, of course, be denied. The scornful reference to Howard and his 'fancy of dungeons for children' in Lamb's 'Essay on Christ's Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years ago' was probably suggested by an exaggerated report of the Root-House incident, when Howard locked his child up in an outhouse in his garden while he went to see a visitor (an account will be found in the Universal Magazine, lxxxvii. 142-4). Burke's well-known eulogium of Howard will be found in his speech at Bristol, delivered in 1780 (Burke, Works, 1815, iii. 380-1). Howard's son John died, hopelessly insane, on 24 April 1799, aged 34, and was buried at Cardington. On his death the Cardington property passed by his father's will to Samuel Charles Whitbread, the second son of Samuel Whitbread. Various relics and a portrait of Howard are preserved at his old house at Cardington, which remains almost intact, and is in the possession of General Mills. There is a portrait of Howard, by Mather Brown, in the National Portrait Gallery, which has been engraved by E. Scott. It appears, however, that Howard never sat for his portrait during his lifetime, and though two plaster casts were taken of his face after his death, by the order of Prince Potemkin, they seem to have been unfortunately lost. Three short contributions by Howard to the Royal Society will be found in 'Philosophical Transactions' (liv. 118, lvii. 201-2, lxi. 53-4). A fourth edition of his 'State of Prisons,' &c., was published after his death (London, 1792, 4to). Among the family documents of the Whitbread family are several papers of interest relating to Howard. A few of Howard's letters and the correspondence and papers relating to his monument are preserved in the British Museum (Addit. MSS. 5409, 5418, 26055, 28104 f. 53).

[Anecdotes of the Life and Character of John Howard, written by a Gentleman, &c., 1790 (with portrait); Aikin's View of the Character and Public Services of the late John Howard, 1792 (with portrait); James Baldwin Brown's Memoirs of the Public and Private Life of John Howard, 2nd edit. 1823 (with portraits of Howard and his second wife); Thomas Taylor's Memoirs of Howard, 2nd edit. 1836; Hepworth Dixon's John Howard, 2nd edit. 1850; Field's Life of John Howard (with portrait); Field's Correspondence of John Howard; Guy's John Howard's Winter's Journey; Stoughton's Howard the Philanthropist and his Friends; Journal of the Statistical Society, xxxvi. 1-18, xxxviii. 430-7; Lecky's History of England, vi. 255-61; Gent. Mag. 1742 p. 499, 1758 p. 243, 1790 pt. i. pp. 82, 276-9, 287-90, 369, 416-18, 491-2, pt. ii. pp. 685 (with portrait), 713-14, 717, 795., 1050, 1090, 1791 pt. ii. pp. 595, 893,906, 1793 pt. i. p. 513; Universal Mag. lxxxvi. 50, 152, 164, 169-74 (with portrait), 255-64, 318-19; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. iii. 142, xi. 408, 472, 4th ser. viii. 527, ix. 94, 7th ser. viii. 203, 240; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

G. F. R. B.