Red Book of Heroes - Andrew Lang

Prisoners and Captives

I am afraid you will think this a sad story, and so it is, but things would have been sadder still but for the man I am going to tell you about. His name was John Howard, and if you were to ask, "Which John Howard?" the answer would be, "John Howard the Philanthropist," which means "a lover of men."

It is a great title for anyone to win, and no one ever earned it more truly than this son of the rich upholsterer of Smithfield, born in Clapton, then a country village of the parish of Hackney, in 1727. As you will see by and by, Howard spent the last seventeen years of his life in fighting three giants who were very hard to beat, named Ignorance, Sloth, and Dirt; and it is all the more difficult to overcome them because they are generally to be met with together. Unfortunately, they never can be wholly killed, for when you think they are left dead on the field after a hard struggle, they always come to life again; but they have never been quite so strong since the war waged on them by John Howard, who died fighting against them in a Russian city.

Howard had always been a delicate boy, which made it all the more wonderful that he could bear the fatigue of the long journeys which he undertook to help people who could not help themselves. He was married twice, but neither of his wives lived long, and he had only one little boy to look after. But when the child was four years old, Howard felt that it was dull for him to be alone with his father, and without any play-fellows, so he sent him to a small school kept by some ladies, where little John, or "Master Howard," as it was the fashion to call him, would be well taken care of.

Howard was a quiet man, and very religious, but, what was rare in those times, he did not believe everybody in the wrong who thought differently from himself. He lived quietly among his books on a small estate he owned near Bedford, called Cardington, where he studied astronomy and questions about heat and cold, and when only twenty-nine was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Medicine always interested him, and he learned enough of it to be very useful to him during his travels; indeed, it was owing to his fame as a doctor that he was summoned to see a young Russian lady dying of fever, which, according to many, infected him, and caused his own death. In his studies and in the care of his tenants many peaceful years passed away. The man who afterwards became known as the champion of "prisoners and captives, and all who were desolate and oppressed," did not allow his own tenants to live in unhealthy and uncomfortable cottages crowded together in tiny rooms with water dropping on to their beds from the badly thatched roofs, like many other landlords both in his day and ours. He opened schools for the children, and drew up rules for them. The girls were taught reading and needlework, the boys reading and a little arithmetic. Writing does not seem to have been thought necessary, as none of the girls learned it, and only a few of the boys—probably the cleverer ones. On Sundays they were all expected to go to church or chapel, whichever their parents preferred.

In spite of the generosity which made John Howard ready to give money or time to any scheme that seemed likely to be of use to the poor, he was not popular with his neighbours, and saw very little of them. They thought him "odd" because he did not care for races, or cock-fights, or long dinners that lasted far into the night, where the gentlemen often drank so much that they could not get home at all. Year by year Howard was teaching himself to do without things, and by and by he was able to live on green tea and a little bread and vegetables, with fruit now and then as a great treat. No wonder he was considered eccentric by the Bedfordshire country gentlemen!

But, in spite of his quiet ways, Howard had a passion for travelling, and when a youth threw up the position of grocer's apprentice which his father had obtained for him, and started for France and Italy. Immediately after the death of his first wife he determined to go for a change to Lisbon, then lying in ruins after the recent earthquake. Before, however, his ship was out of the English Channel it was attacked and overpowered by a French privateer, and both crew and passengers were left without anything to eat or drink for nearly two days. They were then taken to the prison at Brest, thrown into a dark and horribly dirty dungeon, and apparently forgotten. Besides hunger and thirst, they went through terrible pangs, fearing lest they were to be left to starve; but at length the heavy bolts of the iron door were shot back, and a leg of mutton was thrust inside. Nobody had a knife, every weapon had been taken from them, and if they had, they were all too hungry to wait to use it. They sprang on the food like wolves and gnawed it like dogs.

For a week they all remained in their dungeon, and then Howard, at any rate, was allowed to leave it, and was sent first to Morlaix and then to Carpaix, where he was kindly treated by the gaoler, in whose house he lived. Howard gave his word that he would not try to escape, and for two months he remained there—a prisoner on parole, as it is called—writing letters to prisoners he had left behind him, who had not been so fortunate as himself. From what he had gone through he could easily guess what they were suffering, and determined that when once he got back to England he would do everything in his power to obtain their freedom.



In two months Howard was informed by his friend the gaoler that the governor had decided that he should be sent to England, in order that he might arrange to be exchanged for a French naval officer, after swearing that in case this could not be managed, he would return as a prisoner to Brest. It was a great trial of any man's good faith, but it was not misplaced, and happily the exchange was easily made. No sooner were his own affairs settled than Howard set about freeing his countrymen, and very shortly some English ships were sent to Brest with a cargo of French prisoners and came back with an equal number of English ones, all of whom owed their liberty to Howard's exertions.

His captivity in France first gave him an idea of the state of prisons and the sufferings of prisoners, but eighteen years were to pass before the improvement of their condition became the business of his life.

Mr. Howard was appointed high sheriff for the county of Bedford in 1773, and as such had the prisons under his charge. The high sheriffs who had gone before him were of course equally bound to see that everything inside the gaol was clean and well-ordered, but nobody really expected them to trouble their heads about the matter, and certainly they never did. However, Mr. Howard's notion of his duty was very different. He at once visited the county prison in Bedford, and the misery that he found there was repeated almost exactly in nearly every prison in the British Isles. The gaoler in Bedford—and in many other places—had no salary paid him, and therefore screwed all he could out of his prisoners; and no matter if a man were innocent or guilty, if a jury had condemned him or not, he must pay fifteen shillings and fourpence to the gaoler, and two shillings to the warder who brought him his food—when he had any—before he was set free. If, as often happened, the prisoners could not find the money, well, they were locked up till they died, or till the fees were paid.

When Howard informed the magistrates of what he had found, they were as much shocked as if it had not been their business to have known all about it.

"A dreadful state of things, indeed!" they said, "and they were greatly obliged to Mr. Howard for having discovered it. Yes, certainly, the criminals and those who had been confined for debt alone ought to be placed in different parts of the prison, and the men and women should be separated, and an infirmary built for the sick. Oh! they were quite willing to do it, but the cost would be very heavy, and the people might decline to pay it, unless the high sheriff could point to any other county which supported its own gaol."

At the moment, the high sheriff could not, but he had no doubt that such a county would be easily found, so he at once started on a visit to some of the prisons, but, to his surprise, he did not discover one in which the gaoler was paid a fixed salary. And the more he saw of the prisons, the more he was grieved at their condition. Almost all had dungeons for criminals built underground, dark, damp, and dirty, and sometimes as much as twenty feet below the surface; and often these dungeons were very small and very crowded. Mats or, in a few of the better-managed prisons, straw was given the prisoners to lie on, but no coverings, and those who were imprisoned for debt were expected to pay for their own food or go without it.

Sick at heart with all that he had seen, Howard went home for a short rest, and then set out again on one of those tours on which he spent the remaining years of his life, never thinking that the work was done when he had reported on the terrible evils of the prison system, but always returning to make sure that his advice had been carried out, which it often was not. Curious to say, there are few instances of difficulties being put in the way of his inspecting the prisons in any of the countries which he visited, while about six months after his labours began, he was called to the bar of the House of Commons, and publicly thanked for his services in behalf of those who could not help themselves.

Mr. Howard was pleased and touched at the honour done him, and at the proof that

Evil is wrought by want of Thought,

As well as by want of Heart;

but he was much more gratified by two laws that were passed during that session, one for relieving innocent prisoners from paying fees, and the other for insisting on certain rules being carried out which were necessary to keep the prisoners in good health.

This last Act was greatly needed. The bad air, the dirt, and the closeness of the rooms constantly produced an illness called gaol fever, from which numbers of prisoners died yearly, one catching it from the other. Nominally, a doctor was attached to every prison, but instead of being ready, as doctors generally are, to risk their lives for their patients, these men usually showed great cowardice. In Exeter, the doctor when appointed had it set down in writing that he should not be obliged to attend anyone suffering from gaol fever; in the county gaol for Cornwall, every prisoner but one was ill of this disease when Howard paid his first visit there. And no wonder, for here the prison consisted of only one room with a small window, and three "dungeons or cages," the one for women being only five feet long. The food was let down to them through a hole in the floor of the room above.

In Derby, Howard was thankful to see that things were far more what they ought to be. The rooms were larger and lighter, there was an infirmary for the sick, "a neat chapel," and even a bath, "which the prisoners were required occasionally to use." Here the debtors, instead of being nearly starved, were given the same allowance of food as the criminals. They were also supplied with plenty of straw, and had fires in the winter. Newcastle was still better managed, and here the doctor gave his services free; but the Durham gaol was in a terrible state, and when Howard went down into the dungeon he found several criminals lying there half-starved and chained to the floor. The reason of these differences probably lies in the fact that before Howard's time nobody had ever taken the trouble to visit the prisons or to see if the rules were carried out. If, as sometimes happened, the doctor and gaoler were kind-hearted men, anxious to do their duty, then the prisoners were tolerably well cared for. If, on the other hand, they were careless or cruel, the captives had to suffer. This Howard saw, and was resolved, as far as possible, to put the prisoners out of the power of the gaolers, who should be made to undergo a severe punishment for any neglect of duty. For in Howard's mind, though it was, of course, needful that men should learn that if they chose to commit crimes they must pay for them, yet he considered that so much useless misery only made the criminals harder and more brutal, and that the real object of punishment was to help people to correct their faults, and once more to become honest men and women.

Having satisfied himself of the state of the English prisons, and done what he could to improve them, Howard determined to discover how those in foreign countries were managed. Paris was the first place he stopped at, and the famous Bastille the first prison he visited. Here, however, he was absolutely refused admittance, and seems, according to his friend Dr. Aikin, to have narrowly escaped being detained as a prisoner himself. But once outside the walls he remembered having heard that an Act had been passed in 1717, when Louis XV. was seven years old and the duke of Orleans was regent, desiring all gaolers to admit into their prisons any persons who wished to bestow money on the prisoners, only stipulating that whatever was given to those confined in the dungeons should be offered in the presence of the gaoler.

Armed with this knowledge and a quantity of small coins, Howard called on the head of the police, who received him politely and gave him a written pass to the chief prisons in Paris. These he found very bad, with dungeons in some of "these seats of woe beyond imagination horrid and dreadful," yet not apparently any worse than many on this side of the Channel.

After Howard's dismal experiences in England, Scotland, Ireland, and France, it must have given him heartfelt pleasure to visit the prisons in Belgium, which, with scarcely an exception, were "all fresh and clean, no gaol distemper, no prisoners in irons." The bread allowance "far exceeds that of any of our gaols. Two pounds of bread a day, soup once, with a pound of meat on Sunday." This was in Brussels, but when he went on to Ghent, things were better still.

Like most of the large towns of Flanders, Ghent had a stirring history, and its townspeople were rich and prosperous. At the time of Howard's visit, it was part of the dominions of the emperor Joseph II., brother of Marie Antoinette, and by his orders a large prison was in course of building. Though not yet finished, it already contained more than a hundred and fifty men, and Howard felt as if he must be dreaming when he saw that each of these prisoners had a room to himself, a bedstead, a mattress, a pillow, a pair of sheets, with two blankets in winter and one in summer. Everything was very clean, and the food plentiful and wholesome. But, besides all this, Howard noted with a feeling of envy two customs which so far he had tried in vain to introduce into England. One was that the men and the women should be kept apart, and the other, that they should be given useful work to employ their time. In England, a prisoner was sometimes condemned to "hard labour," but this was a mere form. There was no system arranged beforehand for the employment of convicts, and indeed, till more light was admitted into the English prisons, it was too dark to work at anything, so they just sat with the other criminals in the dark, stifling dungeons, with nothing to do and nothing to think of!

A more horrible punishment could not have been invented, and if the criminal left the prison at all, he was sure to come out even worse than he went in. And how was anything else possible?

Now in Ghent, and in most of the Flemish prisons, it was all as different as could be. The women sat in work-rooms of their own, when they had finished cleaning and cooking, mending all their own and the men's clothes, which it was part of their duty to wash. This done, wool in what is called its "raw state" was served out to them—that is, wool as it had been taken off the sheep's fleece—and they had to comb out all the tangles, and spin it into long skeins. Then the skeins were taken to the men, many of whom were weavers by trade, and by them it was woven into cloth which was sold.

Thus, in doing work in which they could occupy themselves and take a pride, the prisoners unconsciously ceased to think all day of the bad lives they had led, and longed to lead again; and when they had served the time of their sentences and were discharged, they had a trade to fall back on, and, what was still more important, the habit of working.

Besides this, the method of "hard labour" carried out in the Ghent prison had another great advantage for the prisoners. Every day each person's work, which would take him a certain number of hours to finish, was dealt out, and when it was done, and done properly, the prisoners were allowed, if they chose, to go on working, and the profits of this work were put aside to be given them when they were discharged. And in Ghent the criminals were not left, as in England, to the mercy of the gaoler, nobody knowing and nobody caring what became of them, for the city magistrates went over the prison once every week, and also arranged what meals the prisoners were to have till the next meeting.

In a gaol in the beautiful old city of Bruges, the contrast between the care taken of the sick criminals and the numberless deaths from gaol fever in his own country filled Howard with the deepest shame. In Bruges, the doctors did not make stipulations that they should not be expected to visit infectious patients, but they wrote out their prescriptions in a book for the magistrates to read. Thus it was possible for the rulers of the city to judge for themselves how ill a man might be, and how he was being treated; and as long as the doctor considered him in need of it, fourteen pence daily—a much larger sum then than now—was allotted to provide soup and other nourishing food for the sick person.

When Howard passed from Belgium to Holland he found the same care, though here the rules respecting the gaolers were stricter, because they were responsible for the orderly state of the prison and the conduct of the prisoners.

The gaolers were forbidden, on pain of a fine, to be seen drinking in public-houses, to quarrel with the prisoners, and to use bad language to them, and, greatest difference of all from the prisons he was accustomed to, no strong drink was allowed to be sold within the walls! Debtors were few, while in England they were more numerous than the criminals; and in Amsterdam not a single person had been executed for ten years, whereas in Britain sheep-stealing and all sorts of petty offences were punished by hanging.

From Holland Mr. Howard travelled to Germany, where, as a whole, the same sort of rules prevailed; and in Hamburg, the wives of the magistrates went to the prisons every Saturday to give out the women's work. In some places the men were set to mend the roads, clean the bridges, clear away the snow, or do whatever the magistrates desired, and a guard with fixed bayonets always attended them. But they much preferred this labour, hard though it often was, to being shut up indoors, and looked healthy and cheerful.

After three months Mr. Howard returned home and inspected the prison at Dover, to find to his dismay everything exactly as before; and when, after a little rest, he set out on a second English tour, scarcely anywhere did he perceive an improvement. One small prison in the Forest of Dean was inhabited by two sick and half-starved men, who had been kept in one room for more than a year almost without water or fire or any allowance for food. In another, at Penzance, which consisted of two tiny rooms in a stable-yard, was one prisoner only, who would have died of hunger had it not been for a brother, even poorer than himself, who brought him just enough to keep him alive. Again and again Howard paid out of his own pocket the debts of many of those miserable people, which sometimes began by being no more than a shilling, but soon mounted up, with all the fees, to several pounds.

With only short intervals for rest, Howard went on travelling and inspecting, now in the British Isles and now abroad, and by slow degrees he began to see an improvement in the condition of the prisoners in his own country, whether criminals or debtors in gaols or convicts in the "hulks," as the rotten old ships used as prisons were called. He was careful never to leave a single cell unvisited, and spoke his mind freely both to the keepers and to the magistrates. The House of Commons always listened with eagerness to all he had to tell, and passed several Bills which should have changed things much for the better. But the difficulty lay, not in making the law, but in getting it carried out.

It is wonderful how, during all these travels and the hours spent in the horrible atmosphere of the prisons, a delicate man like Howard so seldom was ill. Luckily he knew enough of medicine to teach him to take some simple precautions, and he never entered a hospital or prison before breakfast. Dresden and Venice appear to have been the two cities on the Continent where the prisoners were the worst treated, many of them wearing irons, and few of them having enough food.

It would be impossible to give an account of all Howard's journeys, which included Italy, Russia, Turkey, Germany, France, and Holland, but I have told you enough for you to understand what a task he had undertaken. When he was abroad he was sometimes entreated to attend private patients, so widely had his fame spread; and though he did not pretend to be a doctor, he never refused to give any help that was possible, and it was through this kindness that he lost his life. Once, during a visit to Constantinople, he received a message from a man high in the Sultan's favour, begging him to come and see his daughter, as she was suffering great pain and none of the doctors could do anything to relieve her. Howard asked the girl some questions, and felt her pulse, and then gave some simple directions for her treatment which soon took away the pain, and in a few days she was nearly well. Her father was so grateful that he offered Howard a large sum of money, just as he would have done to one of his own countrymen, and was struck dumb when Howard declined the gift, and asked instead for a bunch of the beautiful grapes that he had seen hanging in the garden. As soon as the official had made sure that his ears had not deceived him, he ordered a large supply of the finest grapes to be sent to Howard daily as long as he stayed in Constantinople.

So for a whole month we can imagine him enjoying the Pasha's grapes, in addition to the vegetables, bread, and water which formed his usual meals, taken at any hour that happened to be convenient. If he wished to go to visit a prison or hospital or lazaretto, there was no need to put it off because "it would interfere with his dinner-hour," for his dinner could be eaten any time. Not that there were any hospitals, properly speaking, in Constantinople; for though there was a place in the Greek quarter to which sick people were sent, hardly a single doctor could be found to attend them, and the only real hospital in the capital was for the benefit of cats.

Now in most of the great seaport towns along the Mediterranean, lazarettos, or pest-houses, were built, so that passengers on arriving from plague-stricken countries should be placed in confinement for forty days, till there was no fear of their infecting the people. In England, in spite of her large trade with foreign lands, there were no such buildings, and it is only wonderful that the plague was so little heard of. Howard determined to insist on the wisdom and necessity of the foreign plan; but as he always made his reports from experience and not from hearsay, he felt that the time had come when he should first visit the lazarettos, and then go through the forty days' quarantine himself.

This experiment was more dangerous than any he had yet tried, so instead of taking a servant with him, as had generally been his habit, he set out alone in November 1785.

As regards lazarettos, he found, as he had found with regard to prisons and hospitals, that their condition depended in a great degree on the amount of care taken by the ruler of the city. In Italy there were several that were extremely well managed, especially in the dominions of the grand duke of Tuscany; but he had made up his mind that when the moment came for his quarantine it should be undergone in Venice, the most famous lazaretto of them all. He took ship eastwards, and visited the great leper hospital at the Island of Scio, where everything was done to make the poor creatures as comfortable as possible. Each person had his own room and a garden of his own, where he could grow figs, almonds, and other fruit, besides herbs for cooking.

From Scio Howard sailed to Smyrna, and then changed into another vessel, bound for Venice, which he knew would be put in quarantine the moment it arrived in the city. The winds were contrary and the voyage slow, and off the shores of Greece they were attacked by one of the "Barbary corsairs" who infested the Mediterranean. The Smyrna crew fought hard, for well they knew the terrors of the fate that awaited them if captured, and when their shot was exhausted they loaded their biggest gun with spikes and nails, and anything else that came handy. Howard himself aimed it, and after it had fired a few rounds, the enemy spread his black sails and retired.

At length, after two months, Venice was reached, and as a passenger on board a ship from an infected port, Howard was condemned to forty days' quarantine in the new lazaretto. His cell was as dirty as any dungeon in any English prison, and had neither chair, table, nor bed. His first care was to clean it, but it was so long since anyone had thought of doing such a thing that it was nearly as long before the dirt could be made to disappear, and meanwhile he was attacked by the same headache which had always marked his visit to such places, and in a short time became so ill that he was removed to the old lazaretto. Here he was rather worse off than before, for the water came so close to the walls that the stone floor was always wet, and in a week's time he was given a third apartment, this time consisting of four rooms, but all without furniture and as dirty as the first.

Ordinary washing was again useless to remove the thick coating of filth of all kinds, and at length Howard felt himself getting so ill that by the help of the English consul he was allowed to have some brushes and lime, which by mixing with water became whitewash. He then brushed down the walls without hindrance from anyone, though he had made up his mind that if the guard tried to stop him, he would lock him up in one of the rooms. Almost directly he grew better, and was able to enjoy his tea and bread once more.

The rules for purification of the infected ships were most strict, but it depended on the prior, or head of the lazaretto, whether they were carried out or not. All woollen, cotton, and silk materials, which were specially liable to carry infection, were carefully cleansed. The bags in which they were packed were all emptied, and the men belonging to the lazaretto were strictly forbidden to touch them with their hands, and always used canes to turn over the contents of the bags. This was done daily for forty days, when they were free from infection. Other things were kept in salt water for forty-eight hours, and short-haired animals were made to swim ashore.

John Howard


On November 20, Howard was set free, his health having suffered from the lack of air and exercise, and from anxiety about his son, whom he had left in England. However, he still continued his tour of inspection, and it was not till February 1787 that he reached home. After a short time given to his own affairs, in making the best arrangements that he could for his son, now completely out of his mind, he was soon busily employed in putting a stop very vigorously to the erection of a statue to his honour. The subscriptions to it had been large, for everybody felt how much the country owed to his unwearied efforts in the cause of his fellow-men, carried out entirely at his own cost. But Howard would not listen to them for one moment.

"The execution of your design would be a cruel punishment to me," he says in a letter to the subscribers. "I shall always think the reform now going on in several of the gaols of this kingdom, which I hope will become general, the greatest honour and most ample reward I can possibly receive."

It was Howard who was right, and his friends who were wrong, for though after his death they would no longer be denied, it is not the picture of the statue in St. Paul's which rises before us at the name of John Howard, but that of the prison cell.