Figure 1. After P. Renouard, Wormwood Scrubs prison, London: four cooks in prison uniform standing in a line in front of buckets and baskets, process print, 1889, 15 x 20.8 cm, Wellcome Collection 37857i
Prisons
27th July 2023
by William Tullett
Created at:
27th July 2023
Creator:
William Tullett
Citation:
[click to copy]
Figure 1. After P. Renouard, Wormwood Scrubs prison, London: four cooks in prison uniform standing in a line in front of buckets and baskets, process print, 1889, 15 x 20.8 cm, Wellcome Collection 37857i
Places

In summer 1924 the American judge Florence E. Allen took a trip to London and, whilst there, visited the metropolis’ highest criminal court - the Old Bailey. To her surprise, as she entered the court room, she was given a bouquet of flowers and herbs. Once inside she found the floor strewn with dried rose petals and clover blossom. The visitor thought this a rather odd practice in a court of law. However, she was informed that it was a custom dating back to the eighteenth century, when fears of 'prison fever' had led to attempts to aromatize the courtroom. The new building in which the court was now located was far better ventilated, but the practice of proffering posies continued. Allen reflected that,

"I suppose we can have no real conception of what those old prisons were, but we know that they were reeking with dampness, and there was absolutely no sanitation in the modern sense, and a terrible stench came from the Old Bailey jail into the Old Bailey courtroom." (Allen 1925: 190)

Allen’s remarks were not just deodorized modernity’s enormous condescension for a smelly past: they had been echoed by historical visitors, inmates, and workers when they described prisons. When one writer looked back on the burning down of London's Newgate prison during the Gordon Riots of 1780, they considered it a 'great good' that the 'loathsome' building 'reeking with the moisture of prisoners' breaths, and redolent of the most unhealthy odours' had been demolished (Blanchard 1841).

In the 1780s Louis Sébastien Mercier wrote that Paris was filled with the smells of 'hospitals, stinking common sewers, urinous rivulets, excrementious accumulations, tanners, dyers, &c. in a constant smoke'. He described the city's atmosphere, whether you could 'breathe nor smell' fresh air, as a 'prison' (Mercier, 1817). The idea of the prison smell was so common that it could thus be deployed as an analogy for other close, uncomfortable, and stagnant smellscapes. The houses of the poor could be described similarly. In Balzac's 1834 work Le Père Goriot, he described the Place Maubert area as the most 'horrible' district of Paris where 'the walls smell of prison' (Balzac 1834).

The smell of the prison was distinct enough to be a distinctive referent for writers. When American journalist George Kennan travelled the prisons of Siberia he claimed to smell 'the peculiar characteristic prison odor' (Kennan 1891) and English medical writers referred to 'the indescribable but unmistakable prison odour' (Medical Notes 1868: 561). As one Belgian physican put it in 1876, 'it is impossible to ever forget the specific smell that reigned there: bland nauseating, fetid, sickening, sui generis, in a word the prison smell as it was then designated due to the impossibility of defining it, analysing it, or comparing it to any other known smell’ (Cambrelin 1876: 39).

The precise components in the prison bouquet varied over time but they included some continuous keynotes: odours of bodies and their excrements, of contraband tobacco, and the smell of disease, infection, and decay. The placement of prisons in towns and cities caused complaints from within and without their walls. On the one hand, to the distaste of their inhabitants, prisons were often located in less desirable areas next to stagnant water, waste, or polluting industries. On the other hand, prisons located in urban centres raised the spectre of prison-born fevers and other contagious conditions reaching out of the cells and into the bodies of, ostensibly upstanding, citizens. Various practices were therefore used to manipulate the smellscape – from the use of personal perfumes to the deodorization and disinfection of whole buildings. Both the prisoners and their wards complained about the odours of their accommodation. From the eighteenth-century onwards nosey prison reformers compared various levels of stink as one among many indexes of the relative state of Europe’s lazarettos. But a carefully developed appreciation of the rhythms of prisons smellscapes could be an aid to prisoners, who could use their nuanced nasal knowledge to avoid being caught breaking the institution’s rules. In prisons smells, boundless as ever, resisted discipline and deodorization.  

Odeuropa Smell Explorer
Smells

In the 1980s the then student and, later in life, prison officer Michael Spurr visited Durham prison. He was immediately accosted by the smell of the place. Described by the prison officer that accompanied him on his visit as ‘eau de Durham’, this was ‘a pungent, an institutional odour but particular and unique to prison. A combination of cleaning fluid and carbolic soap masking the stench of bodily fluids, slop buckets, and tobacco’ (Spurr, 2020). These smells were in part caused by the historical architecture of prisons. Often built in the nineteenth century the architecture of British prisons limited the introduction of ventilation, sanitation, and lavation. Many of the smells characteristic of prisons have remained consistent over time: bodies and foul food, tobacco and bad breath, toilets and disinfectants, and ill-ventilated air. Compare the following two descriptions, over one-hundred years apart.

On the one hand, we have the prisons of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Paris. The Magdelonnettes, a convent turned into a prison during the French Revolution, was described in the 1840s as containing an ‘atmosphere of tobacco, of poisonous exhalations, of the smell of grease spread by the wool, in the midst of a filth population’ (Guillot 1890). A late nineteenth-century French novel set in 1790s Paris dramatized this pungency: 

"A smell of a particular fetidity, a smell of a damp and mouldy prison, and yet warmed by the company of a great number of miserable people, seized her throat. It smelled, in addition to being locked up and filthy, it smelled of tears, sobs…" (Héricault 1881: 241-2).

On the other hand, we have the testimony of Eva Kanturkova, a Czech author and screenwriter who was imprisoned as a political dissident in the overcrowded and unclean Ruzyne prison between 1981 and 1982. Kanturkova later wrote that there was:

"no refuge from the stench of other people... . The prison smell clings to your hair, to your clothes, your skin, the mattress you sleep on, the blankets you pull over you; it clings to the floor, the walls, the iron bedposts, and the eyes of the guards. It is compounded of stale cigarette smoke that cannot escape through the tiny windows... The smell holds forever the un-washedness of bodies, their sicknesses, the stench of the toilet, and the bad food, the fetid moldering smell of air breathed over and over again." (Helsinki Watch, 1989: 9-10)

In some countries this 'prison smell' is now see as part of punishment's past. Throughout history buckets have often been used as toilet facilities in prisons. A description of the dungeons of the conciergerie in Paris during the French Revolution noted that the ‘straws of which the prisoners' bedding is made’ was ‘soon corrupted by the lack of air and by the stench of the buckets’ (Guillot 1890). In the 1990s several reports argued that ‘slopping out’ in British prisons, in which inmates had to defecate and urinate in buckets and then empty them each morning, was a degrading assault on human rights: ‘degrading not only for the person using the bucket or pot but also for the person(s) who are obliged to hear and smell his activities’ (Coyle 2003: 25). In Britain during the late 1990s and early 2000s this resulted in a campaign to introduce ‘decency’ into the prison system that involved the banning of tobacco, the end of ‘slopping out’, and the introduction of more regular showers for prisoners. The British prison reformer Stephen Shaw has noted that:

"When I first worked at the Prison Reform Trust in 1981, the very paper on which prisoners would write to us was impregnated with a distinctive smell. You would open the envelope and be hit by a heady mix of stale cabbage, tobacco, urine, and fear. It was part of the letter itself. You would encounter the same stench when you walked onto a prison wing. This smell is now lost to history like the pea-soupers and smogs of Victorian London. The atmosphere in prisons is literally healthier than 30 years ago." (Shaw 2010: 57).

However, reports show that a combination of budget cuts, overcrowding, and older buildings with poor sanitation systems mean that the smell of excrement-filled buckets, parcels of faeces placed on the roofs of prison wings, and other degrading olfactory privations continue. Moreover, the contemporary pattern of pungency varies between and within prison systems across the world (Skarbek, 2020: 49). Even in earlier periods not all prisons smelled alike. Sometimes commonalities can be found. Visiting a French prison in 1950 a writer for the French newspaper Combat noted a similar bouquet to that detected by Shaw in in 1980s Britain: 'this smell of the prison, it is unique, though it comes in four parts: humidity, cabbage, disinfectant, toilets’ (Anon 1950: 6). The musty smell of misery and the smell of dirt'. However, in the eighteenth century the prison reformer John Howard, who toured the corrective institutions of Europe, commented that ‘one rarely experiences, when visiting a prison in France, that revolting odour which often fills English prisons’. 

It is possible that one reason why these poor conditions continue to be found in prisons is that the foul and unsanitary smells of imprisonment are felt – either consciously or unconsciously – to be part of the punishment. In one of the most influential accounts of Europe’s changing cultures of punishment, Michel Foucault argued that between the mid eighteenth and early nineteenth century a revolutionary change in the understanding of judgement and punishment occurred. Before this shift punishment had been directed at the body. After the shift it was instead directed at the soul (Foucault, 1977: 17-19). Yet smell complicates this simple narrative.  

According to Edmund Gayton the mid-seventeenth-century prisons of London smelt of a mix of lice, urine, mice and rat turds, tobacco fumes, cellar stinks and human dung (Gayton 1655: 7). As copious examples suggest, early modern prisoners described these foul odours as an integral part of incarceration. The Quaker Anthony Mellidge described his experience of Winchester prison in 1659, aiming to make it known to the public how he and his co-religionists were suffering. He complained: ‘most noisome stinks and filthy scents have I suffered, by being shut up in it close prisoner ten months, having no place for ayre, but in a smoaky filthy close place’ (Mellidge 1659).  In their lamentations persecuted Quakers frequently emphasised the ‘narrow nasty holes, and stinking Dungeons’ into which they were cast by the state (Fisher 1656) and their conditions of incarceration were front and centre in their petitions for clemency and justice, as in 1662 when Anthony Shellington bemoaned their conditions in London’s Newgate. He described the prison as a ‘dark nasty stinking place’ where a young man on his deathbed ‘would cry out of the noisome stinking Prison, as the occasion of his distemper’ (Shellington 1662: 47).

In many of these sources there is clearly a feeling that smell was being mobilized as part of the punishment. This is what Edmund Chillenden felt was happening when he described the conditions of parliamentary prisoners under royalist guard in Oxford during the mid-seventeenth-century wars of the three kingdoms: dead bodies of horses and men were purposefully left to rot, whilst the keeper imprisoned a surgeon who came to 'dresse the stinking putrified sores of the wounded' (Chillenden 1643: 2, 17, 25). The maintenance of stench in the cells was not just sanitary carelessness but an extra part of the process of punishment and dehumanisation.

The close proximity to one’s own waste was a key part of olfactory complaints. In one seventeenth-century debtors prison the courtyard was home to a 'a House of Office that is so Noisom with putting in of stinking Carrion, wherein it remains, and being so full of Man’s Ordure, that we cannot sit down upon the Seat without defiling our selves' (Pitt 1691). The prison was thus a place in which one was forced into intimacy with the odours of one’s own (and each other’s) effluvia. This characterisation led to Daniel Defoe’s mid-eighteenth-century description of the busy, fashionable, city of Bath as ‘more like a prison than a place of diversion’ because it ‘scarce gives the company room to converse out of the smell of their own excrements’ (Defoe 1927). Defoe, who had spent several months in the Kings Bench prison for debts he owed from unsuccessful business ventures, spoke from experience.

The smells of mortal bodies – sweating, excreting, breathing – were a central part of the experience of early modern prisons. These descriptions should be set alongside another common invocation of prison stench. It was not unusual in early modern texts to refer to the body as a prison for the soul. As Phillip Stubbes pithily put it: ‘my body is nothing else but a stinking prison to my soule’ (Stubbes 1592). It was within the power of belief in Christ to pull ‘downe the walles of this stinking bodily prison, that the soule may receive some fresh ayre in the open light of glory’ (Millet 1652) and on death the soul would be released from this ‘stinking lodging’ (Hutchins 1593). The early modern period also played host to plenty of talk about the ‘spiritual senses’ alongside the bodily ones, as when John Bunyan informed his readers that ‘As the Soul can See, Hear, and Taste, so it can Smell, and bring Refreshment to itself that way’ (Bunyan, 1682: 22). God was, in some sense, a smeller of souls. Christians ‘ought to be in the hand of God, as a Flower or Apple to smell to. For a sweet smell foes forth from the Soul, as from a Flower or Apple’ (Patrick 1655: 296). However, the soul was always in danger of soaking up sinful stench. The wicked world around the body was such that 'the poor Soul cannot... smell at the nostrils, and not be tainted' and only death would deliver the soul from 'this thraldome' (Bayly 1669: 309). Drawing on the 38th Psalm, some also suggested that the outward odours of the body might be an indication of inward spiritual corruption, as when David remarked that 'My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness' (Psalm 38:5).

In sum: in early modern Europe there were a set of discourses in which the soul could sniff, the soul emitted odours, and the odours of the body could render sensible the state of the soul. Given all of this we might say that – contra Foucault – the pungency of prison punishment was an attack on the soul as well as the body. Incarceration forced the prisoner into an awareness of their mortal body and the imprisonment of their soul within it. The foul odour of prisons tainted their occupants as a marker of the sinfulness that had led to their incarceration. It was not just bodies that were tainted by imprisonment, but the souls that inhabited them.

Places

Prisons were often located in odorous parts of towns and cities near waste, animals, or foul smelling trades. Confined in the Tower Chamber of the Fleet Prison in London during late 1553 and 1554, the English Protestant martyr Bishop Hooper noted that his chamber was 'vile and stinking' because on 'one side of the prison, is the sink and filth of the house, and on the other the town ditch, so that the stench of the house hath infected me' (Foxe 1563: 1124). In Bolton, England, during the eighteenth-century the prison was located underneath the butchers' market, making it a 'vile place' that 'reeked with impurities' (Cudworth 1891: 86). Prisoners and prison authorities often complained of smells around the institutions that percolated into them. In 1860 the authorities at Millbank Prison in London complained to the local sanitary officer that there was a ‘deposit of rubbish in the immediate vicinity’ which gave ‘rise to a deleterious and offensive escape’ (Holt 1860: 5).

On the other hand, there were concerns that smells of prisons would spread outward and infect the air around them. In 1663 Humphry Smith, imprisoned in Winchester goal, complained about being confined ‘with so little Air, with the stink of our own Dung’, which caused 'the exceeding closeness of the Prison, whereby sometimes the stink of the Prison hath been so strong forth in the Street, that People could not indure to stand by it' (Smith 1683). In London in the 1720s prisons were located in nearly every part of the city and so there was concern that they would’sned forth Smells very prejudicial’ and ‘bring their smells to the Places of greatest Concourse’. These foul smells were particularly prejudicial to rich Londoners who are 'much less able to bear' them 'because of that neat and clean Manner of living, so habitual to them; the nicest always being the soonest offended' (Anon, 1721: 48). If prisons were set to labour, they might have to travel through the streets of towns together. A Belgian physician remembered that as a child he had seen a chain of convicts being taken from a prison to dig the basins of Antwerp. He recalled that he was 'struck by the repulsive stench with which these unfortunates were impregnated' and added that the smell was so strong that in ‘the streets of my native town the smell of convicts persisted for many hours after their sad procession' (Cambrelin 1876: 39).

As we have seen already, the smell of the prison could often be detected beyond the walls of the lazaretto. Given the widespread understanding of prisons as odorous sites of disease, it should not be surprising that other spaces deemed offensive to the nose were frequently deemed to smell similar. In the eighteenth-century English author Samuel Richardon’s novel Clarissa Robert Lovelace visits the sick room of the dying Madam Sinclair, a brothel owner, who is surrounded by her daughters and by several surgeons. Lovelace retires to the corner of the room and throws open the window, ‘being half-poisoned by the effluvia arising from so many contaminated carcasses; which gave me no imperfect idea of the stench of goals’ (Richardson, 1748). In many of these descriptions one can detect more than a tinge of stereotyping at work. For example, in 1844 George Wilkins Kendall, a Texan journalist, described an ‘an odour, disagreeable and prison-like’ that characterised ‘all Mexican churches’ (Kendall 1844). In Théophile Gautier's antisemitic poem Les Vendeurs du Temple he ascribed ‘a smell of prisons and leprosy’ to the streets where Jews lived in Paris (Gautier 1838: 114). Clearly the use of the ‘prison smell’ as a descriptor could be used to buttress forms of olfactory racism and condescension by those who supposed themselves more ‘civilized’.

But odours of prisons were also described by comparison with other places. For example, nineteenth century offenders in Paris might, on arrest, be consigned to a police-station prison. The smell of a cell in these stations was described as having ‘a striking analogy with that of the foxes’ den in the Jardin des Plantes’ (Guillot 1890). It was no accident that the nineteenth-century perfumer George Wiliam Septimius Piesse described Newgate prison in London as 'a never-cleansed den of carnivorous animals' (Piesse 1862: 137). The stench of jails put prisoners on the same level as animals, engulfed in the smell of their own animal perspirations.

Another comparison that came to European nose when discussing prisons was the tomb. Investigating a nineteenth-century Morrocan prison, the traveller Arthur Leard noted that 'the earthy smell made its resemblance to a tomb complete' (Leared 1891: 192). Not all jails smelled the same. Cells located underground were often described as musty and moudly in odour. In Milllbank prison in the nineteenth century special dark cells were put aside as punishment for prisons and these underground rooms with little light and ventilation had 'the same fungusy smell as belongs to an underground place' (Mayhew and Binny 1862: 258). In a Dutch novel set in the seventeenth-century an imprisoned character laments that they are 'not accustomed to the musty smell of the dungeon' (Lennep 1850-1: 157).

Whilst many prisons throughout the period 1600-1920 were often old and had been in use for hundreds of years, the remains of far older medieval and ancient jails could be found across Europe. Travellers often visited ageing castle where they could detect the classic smell of dungeons, 'a damp, musty-smelling prison' (Thomson 1879). Ancient prisons had often been described by contemporary writers as stench-filled and repulsive places, but by the time modern European tourists travelled to them they had lost much of their fearsome scent. Travelling to Italy, the Englishman Richard Duppa described the Tullanium prison and added that 'there is now no fetid odour; in other respects, Sallust has given a very exact description of it'. (Duppa 1829). Whilst the working prisons with which Europeans were familiar stank of shit, piss, and sweat, these older places of incarceration had a mouldier, damper, mustier odour.

Figure 2. 'Mr Howard (the philanthropist) trying the experiment of letting air into prisons', 1787, hand-coloured print 39.6 x 28.3 cm, Wellcome Collection 544705i

Practices

The smells of prisons were also determined by the daily routines that took place within them. Prison food produced distinctive smells, but often at particular times of the day. A novel set in London's Millbank Penitentiary in 1893 described cells filled with 'the appetising odours of the steaming evening gruel' (Griffiths 1893). As many sources recognised, this was often a temporary break from the less pleasant smells that characterised prisons. When Harry de Windt visited a Moscow prison in 1892 he was 'fortunate enough to visit... at the dinner hour', since he was greeted by 'the savoury smell that arose from the kitchens' (De Windt 1892). However, not all perceptions of prison food were positive. In an 1833 description of the Conciergerie prison in Paris, a prisoner described a 'prison loaf' that was 'of so repulsive a taste and smell, that even hunger could not induce me to eat it' (Peyronnet 1833: 35). In some cases the smell of corrupted food and drink might be, intentionally or not, part of the punishment. When the French state threw Protestants into prison in 1686 it was said that they 'gave them stinking and corrupted water, of which they were hardly drink' (Burnet 1688: 39). Alternatively, it might be the relative lack of sustenance that was used to cause suffering to the prisoner. Several sources told the story of a Hungarian nobleman who found a man in bed with his wife and imprisoned him without food, taunting him by causing ‘a roasted Hen ever and anon to be let down to his nose, that by the smell of the meat his appetite might be excited to greater eagerness’ (Wanley 1678: 381). The inability to immediately act on the hunger generated by the smell of food refocussed attention on the prisoner’s lack of freedom. In an 1894 novel a character beats hemp in a London prison and detects 'a savoury whiff... from the nearest prison kitchen'. The prisoner warder, who had been watching him, is free to walk 'in the direction of the appetising fumes' whilst the prisoner keeps working (Late 1894). On the other hand, the foul odours of prisons might decrease the appetite of inmates. William Young, imprisoned by the Inquisition in Portugal in 1828, described how we was 'indisposed to eat, from the filth and stench of my cell'. When his ill wife came to visit him in prison her illness was 'aggravated by... the horrible stench of the prison' (Young 1828).

Figure 1. After P. Renouard, Wormwood Scrubs prison, London: four cooks in prison uniform standing in a line in front of buckets and baskets, process print, 1889, 15 x 20.8 cm, Wellcome Collection 37857i

In nineteenth-century prisons, as many prisoners were put to reforming work and as the institutions themselves expanded to accomodate ever larger number of inmates, the scents of making entered the smellscape. At Pentonville Prison the shoemaker's workshop was characterised by 'a strong smell of leather' and the steward's storeroom, with its rolls of fabric for convict clothing, emitted the 'usual woollen-drapery smell' (Mayhew 1857: 155). In some prisons the smells of work have overcome the less than sanitary odours of ill-ventilated cells. In one of the high-security prisons for political prisoners along the Kara River, Siberia, the journalist George Kennan noted that the ‘foulness of the air was tempered and disguised, to some extent, by the fresh odour of leather’ that emerged from shoemaker’s bench in one of the cell (Kennan 1891: 148). 

At Tothill Fields prison in London the different workshops each had their own smellscape. In the carpenter's shop 'the nostrils were regaled by a strong turpentiney smell of deal' that contrasted with the 'tarry smell pervading the oakum-room,... the waxy and leathery odour of the shoemaker's shop, as well as the single-blanket perfume of the tailors' (Mayhew and Binny 1862: 427). At Pentonville, the tailor's shop had the 'same unpleasant smell of scorched wool, or hair, so peculiar to Sartorian establishments, which seems to be a kind of odoriferous mixture of a washerwoman's ironing-room and a barber's shop' (Mayhew and Binny 1862: 157). Approaching the ironing room at the Brixton's female prison, 'the smell of burnt flannel' informed the visitor what was going on inside (Mayhew and Binny 1862: 195). At Coldbath's House of Correction in London prisoners swapped their clothes for prison uniforms. Their old clothes were 'fumigated with sulphur to destroy any vermin that it may contain'. When the prisoner was released, and their clothes were returned, the garments retained a 'rather powerful smell of lucifer matches' (Mayhew and Binny 1862: 292). The sins of the prisoner followed them around as the faint odour of the devil, even after they had served their time.

Whilst this many European prisons were undoubtedly foul places, both personal and institutional attempts were made to remedy the smell or protect visitors from the odours. Some of this involved changing the material surfaces of the prison and its courtyards. In parts of some nineteenth-century French prisons the areas where tubs for excrement were cleaned were ‘ground is asphalted to be able to support the frequent washings which the bad smell makes necessary’ (Guillot 1890). Similarly, British colonial prisons were advised that 'wooden cells are cheaper than masonry, but they retain smells' (Prison Discipline 1867: 84). Cleaning regimes were also developed to try and prevent the build-up of prison odour. As new disinfecting and deodorizing fluids were developed in the 1840s, prisons became one of the arenas in which they were tested. In a series of testimonials published in French, several letters from Droghédha in Ireland confirmed that ‘Ledoyen’s disinfecting fluid’ had been successful in removing ‘unpleasant odour’ from the debtor’s prison (Rouget de Lisle, 1849). In fact, one short story in a 1930 collection written by U.S college students surmised that disinfectant might be part of the de-individualisation that the modern prison forced upon its inhabitants: ‘vile - smelling stuff , prison smell! That must be part of the punishment — to make them all smell alike!’ (Brown and Le Compte 1930: 161).

If cleaning failed to deal with prison smells, then one response was to use perfumes or smelling salts to defend the nose. The dangers of prison air were well known enough for Andrew Boorde to discuss them in his 1587 'Breviarie of health', where he recommended the use of 'some perfumes, or to smell to some odoriferous fauours, and to kéepe the prison cleane’ (Boorde 1587). When John Howard the eighteenth-century prisoner reformer toured the prisons of Europe he said that he ‘guarded myself by smelling to vinegar, while I was in those places, and changing my apparel afterwards’ (Howard 1780: 3). Similarly, when the traveller Penry Williams needed to get a new passport in Italy, he had to walk past a series of prison cells to get to the relevant office of police. He complained that the ‘passport offices at Messina, Palermo, and Naples, are scarcely approachable for a civilized person, unless well-armed with ammoniacal salts, or some other olfactory stimulant’ (Williams 1847: 101). The average visitor could therefore equip themselves with some form of olfactory defence against the potentially dangerous or disgusting odours of the prison.

Feelings and Noses

Finally, it is clear from the foregoing entries that several noses populated prisons. From the wardens and prisoners who were in either constant or regular interaction with the prison smellscape to the visitors and inspectors who might enter the prison unaccustomed to its odours. The latter often experienced the prison smellscape as an aggressive attack on their nostrils that elicited disgust. The early eighteenth century prison reformer, James Oglethorpe, admitted that the stench of the cells of London’s Marshalsea prison 'was so intolerable, that Your Committee could not continue in the Room six minutes' (Siena 2019: 88). Those that lived around prisons faced similar issues. A hosier whose premises were located near Newgate prison in London during the 1750s was worried that the stench exuding from the place would put off his customers. He noted that there was nothing ‘more Common in Hot Weather than to see Persons holding their Noses as they go thro’ Newgate’ (Siena 2019: 133).

However, prison inspectors and prison reformers often made calculated comparisons between prisons in terms of the odour they emitted – and were impressed if a prison did not seem to have the ‘prison smell’ that they were led by experience to expect. They were also attentive to particular odours that might suggest laxity of prison discipline. The English explorer Harry de Windt noted that when he visited one of Moscow's prisons in 1892 he could 'not detect an offensive odor'. Instead 'the pre-dominanting one is that of tobacco, for though smoking is nominally forbidden, it is winked at by the authorities... on account of its disinfecting qualities' (De Windt 1892). British prison inspectors noted the same. The inspector at Halifax debtor's prison noted in 1850 that the 'chief exception' to the observance of the prison rules 'was a practice of smoking, as showing by the smell of tobacco in several rooms'. In the same report the inspectors noted the scent of tobacco in Surrey Goal, Chester County Prison, and Lancaster County Prison (Fifteenth Report 1850: 22, 36, 74-5, 150). 

Despite the protestations of prisoners against the foul conditions in which they were often kept, writers frequently suggested that the incarcerated became habituated to the odours of their cells. The moralist Thomas Shelton noted in 1640 that those who lived in sin rarely recognised their evil, just like ‘A Company of prisoners that live together in a Prison Goale, they smell no ill savour, being accustomed to it’ (Shelton 1640: 4), a comparison repeated in other religious texts (Sibbes 1638: 147-8). John Heysham, in a late-eighteenth-century account of ‘jail fever’, noted that ‘the poor wretches , who are in some measure habituated to the fumes of a prison , may not always be sensible of any great inconvenience from them’, as it became ‘their natural atmosphere , when they would no more feel its influence , than the Tanner perceives the smell of his tanyard, or the Chandler the smell of his putrid tallow’ (Heysham 1781).

It was assumed in these cases that the inmates in question were from the lower orders. By contrast, it is clear that stenches of prison were represented as most offensive to the middle and upper class, whose noses were thought to be most sensitive. Mrs Joyce Lewis, a gentleman’s daughter who was burnt at the stake for her Protestant beliefs in 1557, was first kept in ‘so nasty and stinking a prison, that he maid who went with her, not being able to endure it, swounded’ (Anon 1686: 158). One of the complaints of debtors imprisoned in England in the 1690s, as outlined by Moses Pitt, was that keepers 'turn us down into a stinking Cave; not fitting for Persons whose Extraction is Laudable, and Education is Ingenious' (Pitt 1691). The fact that the disinfectants were, in the above case, trialled in debtors prisons where more middle class prisoners were to be found is significant. In eighteenth-century Derby, the prisoners in the debtors prison complained about ordinary prisoners being brought among them and causing disease ‘by the Noisome smell that is occasioned by the croud’ (Siena 2019: 80).

When prisoners gained their freedom, the prison smell was replaced by that of fresh air. On leaving the stench of a prison ship behind, the character in an 1893 story by Australian author Henry Montagu Doughty 'inhaled joyously the salt odour of the tide, for... he was again a free man' (Doughty 1893). When one statesman and philosopher was brought out of Copenhagen prison for his execution in April 1772 'the smell of this dungeon was so disgusting' that he exclaimed 'O! What a blessing it is to breathe pure air!' (Suringar 1823: 306).

But whilst they remained inside, prisoners could use their noses as a tool for resistance. Sniffing could offer power to prisoners. In 1922 Thomas Clarke, the Irish revolutionary political leader, published a series of reflections on his time spent as a political prisoner at the pleasure of the British state. For Clarke, a highly developed appreciation of the smell of the prison and the rhythms of its smellscape could warn him that the watchful eye of the prison warden was near, allowing him to occasionally break the rules without being observed. The full description is worth quoting at length as a fitting end to this entry:

"Experience taught us that while in our cells we never could be certain when the officer's eye was looking in at us through the "Judas hole." The shape and colouring of this inspection aperture, together with the glass on the spy hole, made it impossible to tell whether or not the officer's eye was at the hole. While patrolling the corridors the officers wore fustian shoes and moved about so stealthily that no sound betrayed him to the prisoner inside. This made it very difficult to write or read notes with safety. Not being able to rely on sight or hearing to safeguard ourselves from this danger, nature after a time came to the rescue and enabled us to cultivate the sense of smell to a degree that would astonish mortals living in the world of this twentieth century civilization. In the Penal Cells Building the tiers of cells occupied one side, and these opened onto corridors; a plain wall with windows formed the other side of the building. These windows, for purposes of ventilation, were always left open; as a consequence a current of air, carrying an "institution" smell, swept around the corridors and was carried into the cells by means of a shaft, the opening of which was overhead in the doorway outside. A prison has a smell peculiar to institutions where crowds of humanity are herded together in a building. I have noticed similar smells in asylums, workhouses, etc. However, the smell of a convict prison has an unmistakable individuality. An officer might slip along to the cell door as noiselessly as he wished, but some foreign smell from him, such as hair oil, tobacco, blacking from his accoutrements, beer, etc., would be wafted into the cell to give warning to the prisoner inside of danger that an officer was hovering around outside, probably watching in. For years I trusted to my sense of smell to detect the silent sleuth outside my door who was on the alert to discover infringements of the Prison Rules. Many a time it gave me timely warning. Never did it fail me. (Clarke 1922: 74-5)."

Creator:
William Tullett
Citation:
William Tullett, “Prisons,” Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, accessed April 21, 2024, https://encyclopedia.odeuropa.eu/items/show/16.
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