With the nearest Assize court being Exeter, meaning that all serious crimes such as murders were remanded for trial there (see example of the 1880 Mary Jane Petit Case, the crime management focus in the Three Towns was on their magistrates’ courts and on local policing. County Quarter Sessions were held there, but it it would not be until the New Law Courts were built in 1963, by which time Plymouth was a city, that it secured its own Crown Court. Back in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, magistrates’ courts were often conducted in public houses or even private gentry homes, but where local disorder and offending was a problem, towns tended to construct specialist buildings to try to convey the majesty of the law. Even before the Jervis Acts 1848 required that the summary courts be conducted in appropriate surroundings, new courts had already been constructed in the Three Towns. Devonport, for instance, opened in 1821 within the new Town Hall. By the 1850s each of the Three Towns had a magistrates court with adjacent police station: Plymouth (at Greenbank), East Stonehouse (Charlotte Street) and Devonport (Ker Street). All were impressive civic buildings, the towns were proud of them and local ratepayers, not central government, gave generously to construct them as a testament to their financial investment in the community and the importance of the magistracy in managing the local community.
The Plymouth magistrates’ courts were particularly busy forming a substantial part of the public business of the Three Towns. Unlike many other provincial towns where prominent citizens often took the lead in prosecuting such summary cases in the period up to 1914, Chief Constables Wreford and Sowerby presented the prosecution case thereby maintaining close connections with the Bench. This meant that the ratepayers had to have provided the money from local income for them to do so. The local citizens who acted as magistrates were prominent Plymouth townsfolk or drawn from prominent families in the locality. There was also a powerful cross-over between service on the borough or, by 1888, county councils and membership of the Bench, something which emphasised, in the case of Plymouth, its nonconformist heritage.
There were, in this period, two combined prisons, which were also adjacent to the two workhouses: the Plymouth workhouse and the Union workhouse covering Devonport and Stonehouse. Plymouth prison was on Greenbank Road built in 1849 by T Fuller and WB Gingell to replace the earlier House of Correction; and Devonport and Stonehouse prison was on Central Park Avenue at Pennycomequick. It dates from 1851,designed by the architect J. P. St. Aubyn and built by Hoskyn and Co. of Devonport, and again replaced an earlier House of Correction, managed by the county.
Up to the 1840s, the main purpose of prisons in the justice system was to hold someone awaiting trial, or awaiting the carrying out of a sentence usually either execution or transportation. This had meant the construction of County Gaols, such as that at Exeter. Most prisoners were awaiting transportation as less than 10% of those sentenced to death were actually hanged, the rest had their sentences commuted to transportation and convict hulks, such as those found off Plymouth, were used to hold those awaiting transportation to Australia. But when the government learned that the Australian colonies were no longer willing to take in convicts, it had to radically rethink its sentencing strategy, and the modern prison was born. The idea of transportation was one of penal servitude overseas for usually 7, 14 or 21 years, the whole point was, theoretically, one of rehabilitation, a prisoner was then set ‘free’, so long as they did not return to the UK.
Prisons were then constructed for the purpose of penal servitude at home and early release on licence for ‘good behaviour’ (signalling rehabilitation) was central. Penal servitude meant a sentence of imprisonment WITH hard labour of some kind as this was held to be a form of rehabilitation. The prisons for holding convicts over a long period of time were essentially state penitentiaries or national prisons, run under the supervision of the Home Office. Pentonville (1842) was the first state penitentiary to be built to house prisoners for penal servitude at home but Millbank (1819) constructed originally to hold prisoners awaiting transportation was also used as a state penitentiary. Others included Portland and in 1850, Dartmoor, originally built to house prisoners-of-war, was re-opened as a civilian prison. There were nine such prisons in 1865.
Before modern prisons and sentences of imprisonment people had been held in small detention centres, usually called Houses of Correction or Bridewells, as punishment for some kind of moral misdemeanour and for offences relating to the Poor Law (for example, refusing to pay maintenance for a bastard and leaving it to the parish ratepayers). 80% of these sentences were for a month or less, and could be given with or without hard labour. Boroughs like Plymouth had their own Houses of Correction but there also had to be at least one county House of Correction (Devon’s was in Exeter). Devonport, once it became a county borough also acquired a House of Correction to hold prisoners awaiting trial at Devonport Quarter Sessions and to hold them for short prison sentences. The Prisons Act 1865 formally amalgamated the two systems, and from that time on the term prison was used for all adult places of detention, however local management remained important. The Prisons Act 1877 removed local management to centralise the system under the Home Office, establishing the national prisons system.
Workhouses were originally invented as places (usually without accommodation) to train local children and occasionally adults in work skills that would let them earn a living so they would not be a ‘burden’ on rate-payers. The first Plymouth Workhouse called The Hospital of Poors’ Portion was founded on Catherine Street in 1630 (See image at top of page). It was demolished in the 1870s to make room for the new Guildhall constructed in 1874. A new Workhouse was built at Freedom Fields (which later become the Freedom Fields Hospital). with the foundation stone being laid on 16 March 1852.
Victorian Workhouses were places constructed to hold those too poor to support themselves in the community without Poor Relief, relief which was mandatory under the Poor Law and provided by local rates or taxes. It had become a belief that the vast majority of those going into workhouses were the ‘Undeserving Poor’, who were unable to support themselves because they were idle, feckless or immoral (or a combination of the lot). But unfortunately, workhouses did have to hold also orphans (think Oliver Twist) or children abandoned by parents and too young to work, alongside the physically disabled and chronically sick. Those too old to earn enough to support themselves independently also found themselves going into the workhouse, in their 70s and 80s. To control the population, men and women lived in separate quarters and in bigger Workhouses a married couple might only see each other at a distance in religious services on Sundays. The conditions in workhouses were deliberately unappealing: providing only basic food and drink, medical care and sparse living conditions. Inmates were also expected to work as much as they could, to relieve the local ratepayer of some of the expense of maintaining a workhouse. This often included labouring to produce their own food to keep costs down: Devonport and Plymouth Workhouses both had large gardens in which the men would work. Increasingly during the nineteenth century, these ‘civic amenities’ (prisons and workhouses) were expanded to include other provision that the Victorians came to believe should be provided at taxpayer expense: asylums for the mentally ill, and fever hospitals. It made sense to many local authorities, including those of the Three Towns and the county, that these be provided adjacent to workhouses, and prisons, taking advantage also of the fresh produce opportunities, which helped to keep costs down.