Thank you all for another week of thoughtful discussions. We’re really pleased that the content introduced over the last three weeks has stimulated your comments and collective curiosity. Now that we are drawing to the end of week three, I wanted to pause to reflect on a few topics that proved of particular interest.
The Prison System
In the first place, a number of thoughtful comments were made about the evolution of the penal system and about how surprising it is to find a medieval castle being used as a modern prison. We tend to think of castles as places of defence - places designed to keep people out. Lancaster Castle’s history makes it distinctive in that it was renowned in the modern era as a place for keeping people in, although as we had occasion to see people did periodically escape.
The ancient fabric of the building of Lancaster Castle was altered substantially between the 1700s and the 1800s and the conditions for prisoners (sanitary and otherwise) generally improved – although new disciplinary regimes introduced during the nineteenth century made prison life especially difficult to those sentenced to confinement for criminal offences.
These changes, as we saw, occurred in tandem with changes in how the nature and purpose of imprisonment was conceived. As many of you noted, it seems surprising for us today that people were held in prison not as a form of punishment but as a legal practicality. The idea of the prison as a penitentiary (a place where one does penance for one’s crime) is an innovation of the 1700s and it is one that has had a significant influence on our conception of crime and punishment even today.
Lancaster and the wider world
The status of Lancaster Castle in the period we’ve examined was closely linked with the town’s fortunes. The biennial assizes helped to maintain Lancaster’s status, and these events were also important for the local economy. Assizes began to be held in Liverpool in 1835, and in Manchester in the 1860s. Courts still met in Lancaster, too, but the loss of the town’s monopoly negatively affected the amount of business being transacted in the town.
As many of you noted, moreover, conditions at the Castle and other British prisons were also influenced by events in the wider world including the American Revolutionary War, which disrupted transportation to the New World in the 1770s and 1780s, and accordingly led to an increase in the population of Britain’s prisons. The consequences of the American Revolution are also linked to the rising status of New South Wales (Australia) as a penal colony.
During the 1790s and 1800s, furthermore, the Castle became a place of detention for French prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars. This is a function that, as we’ll discover next week, the Castle also served in the twentieth century, when it was used for holding German prisoners of war.
There were a number of queries about the history of the Castle in the period preceding the late 1700s, including the imprisonment of members of the Society of Friends and other prisoners of conscience. For more information about this topic, I can highly recommend another Lancaster University Massive Open Online Course ‘Radical Spirituality: the Early History of the Quakers’ as well as the work of our colleague, Professor Benjamin Pink Dandelion.
Another question raised was about Lancaster’s connection with the slave trade. This was a major contributor to the town’s fortunes during the 1700s. The town’s involvement with the slave trade had declined by the period we’ve principally been considering this week, but the money from the slave trade continued to contribute to the development of Lancaster in the Georgian era.
If you’re interested in learning more about Lancaster’s involvement in the slave trade, then I would highly recommend the ‘Voyages: Atlantic Slave Trade Database’ which our colleague Dr Nicholas Radburn co-manages.
Paintings as historical sources
I was particularly pleased that a number of people commented on the value of studying painting as a historical source. We often look at paintings without thinking about them as responses to specific historical, economic or political contexts. In the case of the work of a painter such as Turner attention to the details included in the painting can be historically rewarding. As many of you rightly pointed out though it is important to consider the way that a painter selects his subjects and chooses to represent them.
Thank you again for your engagement with the course this week. Next week, the course will conclude with an investigation of the Castle’s roles throughout the twentieth century and into the present day.
Dr Chris Donaldson
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