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Prison Cookbook

Prison Cookbook

by Peter Higginbotham
This copiously illustrated book takes the lid off the real story of prison food. Including the full text of an original prison cookery manual compiled at Parkhurst Prison in 1902, it examines the history of prison catering from the Middle Ages (when prisoners were expected to pay for their own board and lodging whilst inside) through the nefarious prisons of the


This copiously illustrated book takes the lid off the real story of prison food. Including the full text of an original prison cookery manual compiled at Parkhurst Prison in 1902, it examines the history of prison catering from the Middle Ages (when prisoners were expected to pay for their own board and lodging whilst inside) through the nefarious prisons of the Victorian age and on to the present day

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The Prison Cookbook

By Peter Higginbotham

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Peter Higginbotham
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9679-5



The dietary has an intimate relationship with all the other elements of prison life. On its proper adjustment to the requirements of the average prisoner, and the manner of its application and administration, must depend in large measure the successful working of the whole prison system. (Departmental Committee on Prison Dietaries, 1899)

'Food', commented one prison governor, 'is one of the four things you must get right if you like having a roof on your prison.' (National Audit Office, 2006)

Putting people behind bars has a very long history. In a Bible story dating from around the seventeenth century BC, the book of Genesis tells how Joseph, a young Hebrew enslaved in Egypt, was consigned to the Great Prison at Thebes for attempting to seduce the wife of his master Potiphar. The prison was probably a granary where foreign offenders were held and required to perform hard labour. Today, prison has never been so popular – across the world, more than 10 million people are currently locked up.

Being in prison, though, has not always been seen as a punishment in itself. In the past, it was more often used as a means for holding people securely until their trial or until their sentence was carried out. In early Rome, for example, debtors could be held in custody by their creditors for sixty days. Then, if still unable to pay, their fate would probably be slavery or execution by such means as burning, hanging, decapitation or clubbing to death. Justice in ancient Athens largely favoured retribution in the form of punishments such as stoning to death or throwing an offender from a cliff, with prison mainly used to confine debtors or those awaiting trial or execution. The Greek philosopher Plato, in a remarkably prescient view, proposed three new types of prison: a general prison to confine lesser offenders for up to two years; a more isolated centre where more serious but reformable cases were held for at least five years; and a remotely located institution where incorrigible offenders were held for life, without contact with other prisoners or visitors.

Whatever the reason for someone being in prison, it has rarely been intended to be a comfortable or pleasant experience. Rome's ancient Carcer, a group of prison buildings near the Forum, included quarry prisons and the subterranean Tullianum, where Saints Peter and Paul are said to have been held. According to the Roman historian Sallust, the Tullianum's 'neglect, darkness, and stench made it hideous and fearsome to behold'.

Many ancient prisons were, by modern standards, quite small and the health of the inmates – let alone their comfort – was of little concern to those who ran them. Living conditions for those held in early English prisons were often little better. For a long period, they were privately operated with the inmates paying for their own food and accommodation. For those who could afford it, prison could indeed be a relatively painless experience, with a comfortable room and meals bought from the gaoler, cooked themselves or sent in from outside. But for those with little or no money, especially those being held for non-payment of their debts, prison life frequently consisted of a bed on the floor of a dark and damp cellar and a diet of bread and water. Even those found totally innocent of their charges could sometimes remain in gaol indefinitely because they could not pay the necessary release fees.

From the 1770s, reformers such as John Howard, Elizabeth Fry and James Neild exposed the iniquities of the English prison system and campaigned to make prisons more humane, often harnessing the power of public opinion to persuade prison operators to grudgingly fall in line with gradual legislative reforms.

In more recent times, even after the state had taken over the running of the country's prisons in 1877, providing inmates with a bed of bare planks and a meagre diet of bread, porridge or gruel, and occasional potatoes, was still viewed as part of the deterrent value of a prison sentence. Faced with such treatment, it is perhaps not surprising that convicts at Dartmoor in the 1870s resorted to eating dead rats and mice, grass, candles, dogs and earthworms.

Attitudes gradually changed, however, and by the end of the nineteenth century, prison conditions, and particularly food, started to improve. The 1899 Departmental Committee on Prison Dietaries acknowledged that food was a core element in successful prison operation. A new national prison menu saw the inclusion of items such as beans, bacon, suet pudding, tea and cocoa, while the fare provided for prisoners who were sick soon included chicken broth, fishcakes, boiled rabbit, custard pudding and stewed figs. For inmates who misbehaved, however, the result would still be a spell on bread and water. At the same time, increasing concern for how food was prepared resulted in the introduction of training courses for prison cooks and the publication in 1902 of the first prison cookbook – the Manual of Cooking & Baking for the Use of Prison Officers – which is reproduced in full as part of this book.

From the 1950s, prison food began to change out of all recognition with the arrival of sausage, bacon and fried bread for breakfast, and of roast beef, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, bread-and-butter pudding and custard on the dinner menu. Nonetheless, during the 1970s and '80s, 'inedible and monotonous' food was still reported as one of the causes of dissatisfaction which led to a rash of violent disturbances and damage to prison buildings costing many millions of pounds.

By 2005, prisoners could select their meals from a multi-choice menu featuring dishes such as grilled gammon, chicken chasseur, or minced beef lasagne served with garlic bread and salad, with options catering for vegans, vegetarians, and a wide variety of religious and cultural diets. Porridge, the prison's signature dish, had virtually disappeared. Clearly, the prison authorities had taken to heart the maxim of food (along with mail, hot water and visits) being the things you have to get right if you want to keep a roof on your prison.


Prison and Other Punishments


English law has sanctioned the use of imprisonment for more than 1,000 years. In the ninth and tenth centuries, legislators such as Alfred and Athelstan formalised the use of prison sentences, typically 40 to 120 days, sometimes accompanied by a fine, for a range of crimes including oath-breaking, theft, witchcraft, sorcery and murder. Establishing guilt for such offences might involve the accused undergoing the 'threefold ordeal': first, the ordeal of hot iron (carrying a pound weight of the hot metal for a certain distance); second, the ordeal of hot water (the retrieval of a stone hanging by a string in a pitcher of boiling water); third, the ordeal of the accursed morsel (swallowing a piece of bread accompanied by a prayer that it would choke him if he were guilty). Survival of these ordeals with little or no harm, or with an injury that healed very quickly, was taken as a sign of innocence.

The Normans, following their invasion of England in 1066, introduced an alternative form of ordeal, namely trial by combat or 'wager of battle'. This could take place where, for example, an offender accused another person of being the instigator or an accomplice in the crime. The person thus accused, the 'appellee', could demand wager of battle against his accuser, the 'appellant'. If defeated, the appellee was liable to be hung; if he won, the appellee was pardoned. The right to wager of battle was last claimed as recently as 1818 by Abraham Thornton. After Thornton was acquitted of murdering a girl named Mary Ashford, her brother mounted a private prosecution, in response to which Thornton was granted his request for battle. However, the brother withdrew before any combat took place.

The roots of the modern English justice system were created a century after the Conquest when, in 1166, Henry II issued an Act known as the Assize of Clarendon. The Assize is often credited with laying down the origins of the jury system by setting up a grand or 'presenting' jury in each district which was to notify the king's roving judges of the most serious crimes committed there. Clause 7 of the Assize also provided a significant impetus to the use of prisons – it decreed that the sheriff of each county was required to erect a county gaol if none already existed, with the cost being met by the crown.


As the English system evolved, a classification of different types of offence became established. Although their precise definitions changed over the centuries, the main broad categories of crime were high treason, petty treason, felony and misdemeanour.

High treason was an offence against the monarch or the safety of the realm, originally defined by a statute of Edward III in 1350–51. Treasonable offences included: 'compassing or imagining the king's death'; violating the king's wife or eldest daughter (but only if she was unmarried); waging war against the king or aiding his enemies; slaying the king's chancellor, treasurer or judges; and counterfeiting the currency of the realm.

Petty treason was a treason against a royal subject, in particular the murder of someone to whom allegiance was owed, such as a master killed by his servant, or a husband by his wife.

Felony, a word which originally meant 'forfeiture', was a broad category of more serious offence which at one time was punishable by the forfeiture of land or goods, but for which death later became the usual penalty. The main types of felony were murder, rape, larceny (i.e. theft), robbery (i.e. theft with violence) and burglary. However, many specific offences were later added to the list: for example, stealing a hawk became a felony in the reign of Edward III.

Misdemeanours, in contrast to felonies, were less serious offences not involving forfeiture of property.

The traditional punishment for misdemeanours was whipping, the stocks or pillory, or a fine, while that for treason was death. Felonies could be capital or non-capital depending on the particular offence – which ones received the death penalty changed over the centuries.


During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the use of prisons became more widespread. By 1216, all but five counties had complied with the Assize of Clarendon and set up gaols which were often situated in the castles that existed in most county towns. Increasingly, other large towns set up their own gaols, with castles again being a popular location.

In the capital, the Tower of London and Fleet prison were used to hold the king's debtors as well as 'contumacious excommunicates, those who interfered with the working of the law, failed appellants, attainted jurors, perjurers, frauds, and those who misinformed the courts'.

In the main, though, imprisonment was still not regarded as a punishment in itself, but rather a means for keeping offenders in secure custody while awaiting trial or execution, or until they had paid a fine that had been imposed or a debt that was owed. Nonetheless, there was a steady growth of offences for which the penalty was a term in prison. The use of imprisonment for debtors to the crown, which began in 1178, was extended to all debtors in 1352. Other offences, such as aiding a prisoner to escape, prostitution and brothel-keeping, also became punishable by prison. Between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, a gaol term – typically ranging from forty days to a year and a day – became the penalty for around 180 additional offences, including seditious slander, corruption and selling shoddy or underweight goods.


Not all prisons were operated by the civil authorities. The stannary courts at Lydford in Devon and Lostwithiel in Cornwall judged cases involving tin-miners and had their own prisons.

In the royal forests, which in the medieval period numbered eighty and covered three tenths of England, 'forest law' applied. Introduced by William the Conqueror, forest law prohibited not only unauthorised hunting, but almost anything that might be considered harmful to the animals or their habitat, such as felling trees, cutting peat or even – in some cases – collecting firewood. Penalties for offenders included fines and imprisonment, with forest prisons being set up in 1361 at Lyndhurst in Hampshire, and in 1446 at Clarendon Palace in Wiltshire.

A number of prisons were also established by the Church and religious communities. The Bishop of Winchester maintained a small prison for disobedient clerics from 860. By 1076, the punishments inflicted on the inmates included scourging with rods, solitary confinement and a bread and water diet. In 1107, construction began of a new palace, chapel and two prisons (one for men and one for women), on land owned by the bishop at Southwark, the area later becoming known as the Liberty of the Clink. In 1161, the bishop gained the right to license brothels and prostitutes in the Liberty. A 'Winchester goose' subsequently became a popular name both for one of the women and also for a venereal condition that was characterised by a swelling in the groin.

In 1332, the Archbishop of York erected a large gaol at Hexham, three storeys high, with two dungeons. It was used to hold transgressors from his estates in the ecclesiastical liberty of Hexhamshire. Part of the Lollard's Tower at Lambeth Palace was used by the Archbishop of Canterbury to detain free-thinking (and therefore heretical) followers of John Wycliffe, translator of the Bible into English. The Bishop of London also maintained a prison within the precincts of St Paul's Cathedral.

Monasteries and abbeys often included a prison amongst their buildings. At Fountains Abbey, three cells were constructed in the basement of the abbot's house. Each had its own latrine and the inmates were chained to an iron staple which was set into the floor. Excavations in the nineteenth century revealed some Latin graffiti which indicate that the cells were used for disobedient monks rather than lay brothers. The scribblings on one of the walls included the phrase Vale libertas ('Farewell freedom').


The Canon Law of ecclesiastical courts and the Common Law of the king's courts sometimes came to conflicting conclusions about the appropriate punishment for a crime perpetrated by someone in holy orders. To resolve this situation, Common Law courts relinquished the use of the death penalty for some less serious capital offences if committed by a member of the clergy. Instead, a lesser punishment was administered, typically a whipping or short prison sentence.

In 1305, the Benefit of Clergy, as it came to be known, was extended to secular clerks who could read and write Latin. It was later broadened to include anyone with a tonsure – the monk's traditional shaven crown – and finally to anyone who was literate. When faced with the possibility of the death penalty, an offender could demonstrate his entitlement to Benefit of Clergy by 'calling for the book' – the Bible – from which he would read aloud. The usual text was the so-called 'neck verse': 'Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.'

Capital offences for which the death penalty could be evaded in this way were classed as 'clergyable' and their number steadily grew, with murder on the highway being included from 1512 and privily [secretly] stealing from the person in 1565. However, increasing abuse of the privilege led, from the sixteenth century, to an increasing number of existing offences being deemed non-clergyable. These included murder, rape, robbery, witchcraft and stealing a horse, later joined by the stealing of sheep or mail.

A common ploy for claiming Benefit of Clergy by someone who was not literate was simply to memorise the neck verse. In one famous case during the time of Edward III, the accused man appeared to read equally fluently regardless of which way round the Bible was given to him – it transpired that he had been coached by two boys let in to visit him by the gaoler. Another ruse was to shave the defendant's head in the style of the tonsure, again with the gaoler's assistance sometimes being provided.


Despite the gradual growth in the use of prison as a punishment, the sentence for most serious crimes remained the death penalty. Execution had an obvious attraction in that it permanently disposed of the offender and so removed any possibility of further transgression. In the case of treason and other political crimes, a dead opponent could not indulge in any further plotting. For more commonplace offences, execution – carried out in a highly public and bloody manner – was viewed as a valuable deterrent for those who might be tempted to break the law.


Excerpted from The Prison Cookbook by Peter Higginbotham. Copyright © 2013 Peter Higginbotham. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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