The Secret of Lincoln Jail

Review by Guy Woolnough, Keele University.

Time Team Specials, Channel Four, 30th June 2013.

The excellent ‘Secret of Lincoln Jail’ showed how history can and should be presented.  The medium was used to deliver an interesting programme which did neither sensationalised its subject nor patronised its audience. It engaged with the serious issues without being overly complex or tedious.

Lincoln gaol (the spelling I prefer) was used as the star, and enabled the presentation of a history of incarceration since the middle ages. Of course, the tangible and documentary evidence is rather thin before the eighteenth century, but Nottingham castle was able to supply an oubliette. It is interesting to note that audiences need a physical demonstration of punishments, so that Alex Langlands, who specialises in personal discomfort, was drafted in to experience the pillory, oubliette and crank. Mercifully, they spared him the drop.

The viewers also need a special investigation, so the Time Team had to excavate in the grounds of the gaol. I guess the dig revealed little or nothing that could not be gained from examining the existing building and documents. I notice that the archaeology enthusiasts, commenting on the website, expressed disappointment at the lack of serious digging.

However the physical effort did generate a feeling of positive investigation leading to discovery. Looking at cess pits and heating systems, and putting Alex Langlands to the crank, adds some excitement to the history. The dig was not excessively contrived, sensational or irrelevant, and it did support the programme’s conclusions (see below). Moreover, it highlighted the use of a number of experts, whose measured, clear and invaluable contributions were necessary for interpretation. Judith Rowbotham, Chris Williams, Peter King, Barry Godfrey and Helen Johnston were all allowed to deploy their expertise sensitively and to great effect. These names are the ‘usual suspects,’ whose work will be familiar to crime historians[1]. There was also very effective contributions from Helen Bates, of Lincoln Castle, and Dr Richard Barnett of the Wellcome Trust. The use of these experts in ‘Lincoln Jail’ is a striking contrast to the practice in ITV’s ‘Secrets of the Workhouse’ in which the experts were trivialised in favour of the emotional reaction of the ‘celebs’ who were the real target of the programme. (See Lesley Hulonce’s excellent blog  on this site). In ‘Lincoln Jail’ the audience was left to draw its own emotional conclusions.

It was most effective to hear Judith Rowbotham on the oubliette, Chris Williams on solitary confinement, Barry Godfrey on transportation, Helen Johnston on the separate system. They conveyed the impact of these penal systems in a detached manner that underlined the true significance of the systems. Helen, for example, summarised wonderfully the early nineteenth century idea that isolation would allow prisoners to reflect upon the relationship of their souls to God, and that this would lead to reform and redemption. It did, of course, lead to madness.

The trope of a dig in the gaol allowed the programme to explore, almost literally, the shortcomings of the nineteenth century gaol system. The physical failings of the newly built structure of Lincoln Gaol were used as a metaphor for the flawed system itself. The ‘modern’ heating and sewage systems that were intended to enable the prisoners to be kept separate failed spectacularly, causing disease and ill health among both prisoners and staff.

Tony Robinson did an excellent job of presentation. His conclusion was particularly striking, for he linked the long history of incarceration at Lincoln with current concerns about penality. He showed how history can so often inform current debates; that imprisonment has so often been touted as a solution to criminality without any careful consideration of its humanity or its effectiveness.

[1] For those keen to explore further, these names are a very good starting place for a search. Two works from a previous generation might be added: Ignatieff, M., 1989. A just measure of pain: the penitentiary in the industrial revolution, 1750_1850. Penguin. Foucault, M., 1979. Discipline and punish : the birth of the prison. Penguin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *