John Howard (prison reformer)

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John Howard (September 2, 1726 – January 20, 1790) was a British philanthropist and prison reformer. Born into a wealthy family and inheriting considerable fortune, Howard traveled widely. His experience of prison awakened in him a vocation for service, and a subsequent religious experience led him to determine to make an important contribution to the world. Accepting an appointment as High Sheriff, he invested himself personally into the task, visiting the jail and investigating problems with the penal system. He would eventually spend the rest of his life, and considerable amounts of money, on efforts for prison reform and improvement of the lives of prisoners both within the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe. His exemplary efforts in living for the sake of others are remembered and honored in several organizations bearing his name that continue to work for penal reform.

Life and work

Birth and early life

John Howard was born on September 2, 1726 in Lower Clapton, London, England. His father was a wealthy upholsterer at Smithfield Market in the city. His mother died when he was five, and being described as a "sickly child," he was sent to live at Cardington, Bedfordshire, some 40 miles from London, where his father owned property. His father, a strict disciplinarian with strong religious beliefs, sent young John to a school in Hertford and then to John Eames' Dissenting Academy in London.

After school, John worked as an apprentice to a wholesale grocer to learn business methods, but he was unhappy. When his father died in 1742, he was left with a sizable inheritance but no true vocation. His Calvinist faith and quiet, serious disposition meant he had little desire for the fashionable endeavors of an English aristocratic lifestyle. In 1748, he left England to tour France and Italy.

Upon his return, he lived in lodgings in Stoke Newington, where he again became seriously ill. He was nursed back to health by his landlady, Sarah Loidore, whom he then married despite her being 30 years his senior. She died within three years, and he distributed her meager belongings amongst her remaining family and poor neighbors.

Howard as a prisoner

He then set out for Portugal, traveling on the ship Hanover, which was captured by French privateers. He was imprisoned in Brest, France, for six days before being transferred to another prison on the French coast. He was later exchanged for a French officer held by the British, and he quickly traveled to the Commissioners of Sick and Wounded Seamen in London to seek help on behalf of his fellow captives. It is widely believed that this personal experience generated Howard's interest in prisons.

Howard at Cardington

Having returned from France, he settled again at Cardington, Bedfordshire, to live on a 200 acre estate which consisted of two farms, the larger of which he had inherited from his grandparents. He spent the next two years building properties and trying to improve the lives of the tenants living on his land. Later, a survey of Cardington in 1782 found that he was paying for the education of 23 children.

In 1758, Howard married Henrietta Leeds. She died in 1765, a week after giving birth to a son, also named John, who was sent to boarding school at a very young age. The younger John was expelled from Cambridge University for homosexual offenses, was judged insane at the age of 21, and died in 1799 having spent 13 years in an asylum.

After the death of his wife, Howard returned to traveling. While in Naples, Italy, in 1770, he had a profound religious experience. It is believed that it was then that he made a promise to God that he would make some important contribution to the world. When he was asked in 1773 to become High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, he accepted the post seeing it as a way to serve God.

High Sheriff of Bedfordshire

Howard was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, initially for a one-year period. Such was his dedication that, rather than delegating his duties to the under-sheriff as was customary, Howard inspected the county prison himself. He was shocked by what he found, and spurred into action to inspect prisons throughout England. Of particular concern to Howard were those prisoners who were held in prison despite having been acquitted of any crime by the courts, because they could not pay the jailer's fee—an amount paid to the owner or keeper of the prison for upkeep. He took this issue to parliament, and in 1774 was called to give evidence on prison conditions to a House of Commons select committee. Members of that committee were so impressed that, unusually, they called Howard to the bar of the House of Commons and publicly thanked him for his "humanity and zeal."

In 1774, the Parliament passed the Gaol Act, which abolished jailer's fees and proposed ways to improve the sanitary conditions in prisons.

Having visited several hundred prisons across England, Scotland, Wales and wider Europe, Howard published the first edition of The State of the Prisons in 1777. It included very detailed accounts of the prisons he had visited, including plans and maps, together with detailed instructions on the necessary improvements. The following account, of the Bridewell at Abingdon, Oxfordshire, is typical:

Two dirty day-rooms; and three offensive night-rooms: That for men eight feet square: one of the women's, nine by eight; the other four and a half feet square: the straw, worn to dust, swarmed with vermin: no court: no water accessible to prisoners. The petty offenders were in irons: at my last visit, eight were women. (Howard 1777)

In April 1777, Howard's sister died, leaving him £15,000 and her house. He used this inheritance and the revenue from the sale of her house to further his work on prisons. In 1778, he was again called by the House of Commons, who were this time inquiring into "hulks," or prison ships. Two days after giving evidence, he was again traveling Europe, beginning in Holland.

By 1784, Howard calculated that he had traveled over 42,000 miles visiting prisons. He had been awarded an honorary law degree by the University of Dublin and had been given the Freedom of the City of London. His fourth and final tour of English prisons began in March 1787, and two years later he published The State of the Prisons in England, and An Account of the Principal Lazarettos of Europe.


Howard's final journey took him into Eastern Europe and Russia, where he researched ways to limit contagious diseases. While visiting the military hospital in Kherson, in what is now Ukraine, Howard contracted typhus and died. He was buried on the shores of the Black Sea. Despite requesting a quiet funeral without pomp and ceremony, the event was elaborate and attended by the Prince of Moldova. When news of his death reached England, in February 1790, several John Howard halfpennies were struck, including one with the engraving "Go forth, Remember the Debtors in Gaol."


Due to his exemplary efforts in prison reform, John Howard has been honored in various ways. He became the first civilian to be honored with a statue in St. Paul's Cathedral, London. A statue was also erected in Bedfordshire, England, and a further one in Kherson, Ukraine. His bust features in the architecture of a number of Victorian prisons across the United Kingdom, such as at Shrewsbury.

Almost 80 years after his death, the Howard Association was formed in London, with the aim of ""promotion of the most efficient means of penal treatment and crime prevention" and to promote "a reformatory and radically preventive treatment of offenders." In its first annual report in 1867, the Association stated that its efforts had been focused on "the promotion of reformatory and remunerative prison labor, and the abolition of capital punishment." The Association merged with the Penal Reform League in 1921 to become the Howard League for Penal Reform. Today, the Howard League is Britain's largest penal reform organization.

John Howard is also the namesake of the John Howard Society, a Canadian non-profit organization that seeks to develop understanding and effective responses to the problem of crime. The Howard Association, a benevolent organization, was also named after him. There is also a Howard League for Penal Reform in New Zealand. The John Howard Association of Illinois formed in 1901, works for corrections reform in Illinois prisons and jails.


  • Howard, John. [1777] 2000. The state of the prisons in England and Wales, with preliminary observations, and an account of some foreign prisons. State of the prisons in Britain, 1775-1905, v.1. London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press.
  • Howard, John. [1787] 1973. Prisons and Lazarettos. Patterson Smith. ISBN 0875851355

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aikin, John. 1994. A View of the Life, Travels, and Philanthropic Labours of the Late John Howard. Fred B Rothman & Co. ISBN 0837719127
  • Dixon, William H. 1869. John Howard, and the prison-world of Europe. Robert Carter & Brothers.
  • Howard, Derek L. 1963. John Howard: Prison reformer. Archer House.
  • John Howard. The Howard League for Penal Reform, 2006. Retrieved January 9, 2008.
  • The Howard League for Penal Reform. The Howard League for Penal Reform, 2006. Retrieved on March 31, 2007.
  • Southwood, Martin. 1958. John Howard, prison reformer: An account of his life and travels. Independent Press Ltd.

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.


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