Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Curious Mr Howard

When packing the library collections I noticed an extensive number of biographies produced over the centuries about Mr John Howard. He, aside from Bunyan, is the most familiar name within and outside of Bedford connected with its history, and there is still recognition for his valiant efforts as a prison reformer. As one of his biographers put it, Howard "was as eager to get into prisons as Bunyan was to get out".
John Howard, Lithograph by Antoine Maurin, 1820's - 30's, after artist Mather Brown 1789,
original in National Portait Gallery, reproduction from Lantern Slide, BEDFM 1974.27.1537
John Howard’s accurate birth date is not known, but it is generally acknowledged as 1726. His mother died when he was a boy and John’s father sent him to boarding school in Hertford around 1733. When John’s father died in 1742 he was an apprentice to Newnham and Shepley, grocers and sugar merchants near St. Paul’s in London. Following his father’s death, using the money he inherited, he set off on a Grand Tour of Europe, which was a popular thing to do during the age, and discovered an enthusiasm for travel abroad. John was taken ill with a ‘nervous fever’ and cut his travels short with a visit to Hotwells in Bristol. Around 1751 he lodged with Sarah Lardeau at Stoke Newington who cared for him during his illness and he married her a year later. She unfortunately died after three years of marriage.

Bristol Delftware Plate from Howard's dinner-service. BEDFM 2006.198
In 1757 Howard set off for Lisbon following a devastating earthquake there – curious to see the damage to the country and still recovering from the loss of his wife. The ship he travelled on, the Hanover, was captured by privateers and he was imprisoned firstly at Brest Castle, later some of the crew were held at Dinan. “In the castle at Brest I lay six nights upon the straw; and observing how cruelly my countrymen were used there … I had sufficient evidence of their being treated with such barbarity, that many hundreds perished; and that thirty-six were buried in a hole in Dinan in one day”.

Earthquake at Lisbon, 1755. BEDFM 1974.27.1570
Howard was fortunate that he was treated as if he was an English officer and was paroled to live as an almost-free man. He was eventually released and returned to England in exchange for a French Officer being released in his stead. When he returned he immediately complained about the abuses of the Englishmen he had witnessed to the Commisioners for the Care of Sick and Wounded Seamen, including Prisoners-of-war. This was the first attempt by Howard to reduce the suffering of prisoners. The event appears to be formative in his interest in seeing justice for those imprisoned inhumanely.

Henrietta Leeds, John Howard's second wife. BEDFM 1974.27.1542
After 1757 Howard moved to Cardington to his father’s estate and started making improvements to the cottages for the workers on the estate. On 25th April 1758, he married Henrietta Leeds and moved to Watcombe Park in Hampshire for three years due to Henrietta’s poor health. In 1763 he made improvements to his own house at Cardington.

Howard's House at Cardington before improvements. BEDFM 1974.27.1544
On 25th March 1765 Henrietta gave birth to their son, Jack. Sadly, a few days after the birth, Henrietta died suddenly. John struggled to come to terms with Henrietta’s death and decided on a period of travel abroad, which was again to be interrupted by restorative visits to Bath and Bristol for his health.
He returned to Cardington in 1770 as at this time he is recorded as contributing £50 toward a new Pulpit. He later split from Bunyan Meeting Church in 1772, after a disagreement with the then minister over disallowing child baptism and went on to form his own Congregational Church further along Mill Street in 1774.

Howard Congregational Church, Mill Street. BEDFM 1974.27.131
John was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773, after being nominated by and with persuasion from Mr Samuel Howard Whitbread to take up the role.
His attendance at the Assizes Court was the first time since his own imprisonment as a Prisoner of War that he had come into contact with real prisoners. Afterwards he decided to investigate the conditions of prisons locally, with his first visit to Bedford and Cambridge jails in that same year. He then travelled up and down the country gathering evidence and statistics for his report, published in 1777, on the State of the Prisons. He highlighted that a great deal of reform was needed to relieve the suffering and in particular he pursued the issue of debtors being trapped in prison by the release fees, set and administered by the jailor and forced to languish in jail. His main suggestion was the abolition of the Jailors fees, and paying the governor a fair annual salary by way of compensation from the state. He raised the issues of disease, malnutrition and lack of adequate facilities for prisoners that equated not only to a harsh punishment, but in effect a death sentence for many.

John Howard visiting prisoners, thought to be by James Gillray,
reproduction from Lantern Slide BEDFM 1974.27.1528.
Howard became obsessed with providing the evidence, not just in England, but also for comparisons of prison conditions Europe wide. He extended his travels to France, Switzerland, Holland, Germany and the Netherlands. In 1781 he extended his visits to Russia and Poland. In 1785 he set off to explore the causes of the plague and in 1786 he became quarantined at a lazaretto (a quarantine camp) near Venice. Following his publication Lazarettos and Tuscan Law on his seventh foreign visit he arrived at Kherson in the Ukraine. In January 1790 he nursed a young woman at Kherson who was suffering from a fever and unfortunately he caught the disease himself. He died just 12 days later. He was given a grand funeral in the Ukraine, although this was against his wishes and a memorial was created in his honour, that survives in Kherson today. At John Howard's express wishes a modest memorial was placed at St. Mary's Church, Cardington above his wife Henrietta's inscription.

Photograph of the unveiling of John Howard's Statue in St. Paul's Square, 1894. BEDFM 1974.27.1554a
Over a hundred years later in 1894 Bedford commemorated John Howard by unveiling a statue in St. Paul’s Square. A ha'penny was also produced in commemoration of his work, with the inscription 'Remember the Debtors in Jail'.   

The Howard Penal Reform League was first formed in 1866 based on the principles John Howard had established through his international prison research, and to be a society for debate and reform in prisons for the future. You can find out more at The Howard Penal Reform League website .

Front cover of Tessa West's new biography The Curious Mr Howard, published 2011
The Curious Mr Howard by Tessa West is a newly published biography about the prison reformer. Tessa’s background of working both in education and within prisons gave her an insight and empathy with John Howard. In her introduction she states she was inquisitive to know what motivated Howard to travel as widely as he did and explore such horrendous conditions in prisons at considerable risk to his own health. She was interested in seeking a little more from known sources about his personality and character. Tessa endeavours to move away from the glorifying biographies to look more realistically at the man and his actions.

One aspect of John Howard that Tessa West explores in some detail in her biography is a scientific exploratory paper from 2001 by a psychiatrist looking at whether Howard may have suffered from Aspergers syndrome or something similar. His awkwardness with people, his strict religious beliefs and routines, his difficulty with numbers and writing, his insistent punctuality, his numerous re-visiting of prisons over and over are all suggestive factors. Many of his contemporaries noted his unusual or peculiar behaviour and at times even he referred to himself as ‘Mad Jack Howard’. The Gentleman’s magazine wrote the following obituary, when having received news of ‘the not unexpected, yet certainly untimely, death of the eccentric but truly worthy John Howard, Esq.”. Perhaps it was his eccentricities that made him well suited for the task he set himself of striving for prison reform, and gave him comfort from a life that had been less than ideal, but at least had proved worthwhile. 

Lydia Saul
Keeper of Social History

Thanks to Tessa West author of The Curious Mr Howard from which most of the facts cited above were compiled. Thanks also to Waterside Press, the publishers for providing a complimentary copy for the Museum and Art Gallery Library.

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