Plan of a prison influenced by Bentham’s Panopticon

[Anonymous]. Devizes Prison BLOCK PLAN. [No place, ca. latter part 19th century.]
Ink-and-wash architectural drawing on wove paper, 23 ¼”h x 18 ½”w at sheet edge. Moderate toning and soiling.

Fascinating 19th-century manuscript architectural plan of a Wiltshire prison on a revolutionary design, owing a debt to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.

Devizes Prison (properly Devizes County House of Corrections or colloquially “New Bridewell”) was designed by Richard Ingleman (1777-1838). Construction was completed in 1817, and the facility remained in use until being closed and demolished in the 1920s.

Ingleman, an architect from Nottinghamshire, is particularly associated with the design of large institutional buildings: prisons and mental hospitals. His design for Devizes Prison is unusual, if not revolutionary: with the governor’s house placed at the centre and the prison arranged as a rotunda, an “inner wheel”, originally two-story, with the prison walls as the outer wheel.

Ingleman’s prison is reminiscent of the “panopticon penitentiary” design much favoured by the contemporary philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who actively advocated prison reform. Bentham argued that prison quarters and workshop areas should be visible at all times, to be accomplished by spy holes leading to a central point where a single jailer could monitor the inmates. The continuous observation, Bentham argued, would inspire (coerce?) them to work harder and so be of greater benefit to society, and behave better, so as to be less troublesome to their jailers. Bentham expounded his theories in his “Panopticon, or the Inspection House…”, published in Dublin in 1791 and containing an engraved ground plan of a panopticon prison. Ingleman’s design owes a clear debt to Bentham’s work—he must have known of it, whether the two men ever met (which cannot be established)—but he has recast it in a more functional form, so that secret observation is replaced by a more overt ability to observe all areas of the prison and prisoners’ lives.

While the overall design may be relatively new, the prison incorporates standard features of nineteenth century constructions, as government sought to make prisoners perform worthwhile work activities; visible are the mill and treadmill, gardens, a carpentry shop and a smithy. An interesting feature is the inclusion of facilities for female prisoners, including a separate reception area, cells and hospital facility.

The plan is undated but clearly an official document which apparently post-dates 1868: in that year construction of ten additional cells and an extension to the prison chapel were authorised, with a new laundry and female infirmary, and improvements made to the heating. It may relate to the transfer of operation of the prison from local authorities to the central government in 1877.

The plan has the faint manuscript annotation, “National Telephone Co[m]pany’s pole See letting book,” evidently a later addition; the National Telephone Company operated between 1881 and 1912, but only took over telephone service in the west of England in 1892.

While some manuscript plans of the prison can be found in the Wiltshire and Swindon Historical Society, none have been traced in major collections, such as the British Library, and none have been found online for comparative purposes.