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John Howard (1726-90)

John Howard was the leading prison and hospital reformer of his age. Left a rich man as a result of his father’s death, Howard bought an estate at Cardington, Bedfordshire, which he managed directly. He was an enlightened landlord, improving the labourers’ cottages and encouraging efficiency and order. After being imprisoned by privateers while on a sea voyage in 1756, he put this experience to good use on becoming High Sheriff of Bedfordshire. When he discovered the condition of Bedford jail he was appalled by what he saw, and began to visit the jails of neighbouring counties to investigate their condition and management.

The investigation of prisons and jails subsequently became Howard’s life’s work. He went on major expeditions at home and abroad in 1774-76, 1781, 1783 and 1785-86. During this period he travelled approximately 50,000 miles, notebook in hand, visiting prisons, hospitals, lazarettos, schools and workhouses, speaking with authorities, measuring rooms and even tasting the provisions. His life can be described as one extended tour of prisons and hospitals. His investigations culminated in the publication of the State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777) and An Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe (1789). These volumes presented the layout and organisation of prisons and lazarettos, as well as conditions inmates faced, whether good or bad.

Howard died in 1790 after contracting camp fever while visiting a Russian hospital. He was eulogised by his contemporaries, and a statue was erected in his memory at St Paul’s, London.


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R Porter, ‘Howard’s beginning: prisons, disease, hygiene’, in R Creese, W F Bynum and J Bearn, The Health of Prisoners (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995), pp 5-26