Light in dark places: photographs of prisoners in Reading Gaol

From the December 1999 issue of the Berkshire Family Historian

by Elizabeth Hughes

Amongst the records of Reading Prison deposited at Berkshire Record Office (BRO) are four photograph albums of prisoner "mug shots" for the period 1883-1915.1 They were transferred to BRO from the Public Record Office (PRO) with other records of Reading Gaol in 1977.

Such albums by no means exist for every prison and their creation and survival do not appear to have been general. The idea of recording prisoners photographically seems to have arisen from the Habitual Criminals Act of 1869, which stated that a register of all people convicted of a crime in England should be kept by the Metropolitan Commissioner of Police, together with evidence of their identity. This was interpreted in some areas as meaning a photographic likeness.2 It certainly seems to have been the case at Reading, and Thomas Wood, a local photographer, was employed to take a portrait and profile photograph of prisoners.3 When it proved difficult to take the pictures in the open air, a small studio was erected in the exercise yard. This venture only lasted six months, after which it was discontinued for financial reasons, and the studio turned into an execution chamber.4 The early photographs have not survived; those at Berkshire Record Office represent a revival of the practice.

It is interesting to see how the photographs change over time. The earliest pictures show the inmates from head to lap. Many are dressed in their ordinary clothes, others in prison uniforms, complete with arrows. This not only identified the clothing as being of government origin, but also meant that escapees stood out from the crowd.5 Many uniformed prisoners also wear circular badges bearing numbers indicating the wing, floor and number of their cell (see fig.1). There were three wings for criminal inmates, A, B, and C. These are indicated on plans held at Berkshire Record Office which show the prison as it was rebuilt in 1841-44.6 The plans also show that each wing originally had three landings on which there was a series of numbered cells. Thus, CIII.3 identified a prisoner belonging to cell 3 on landing 3 of C wing. This was Oscar Wilde's cell number, and the pseudonym he used when The Ballad of Reading Gaol was first published.7

Figure 1

In the photographs taken between 1887 and 1895, most prisoners have their hands in front of them, palm inwards and fingers spread, presumably to show if any fingers are missing, since the photographs were acting as a means to identify prisoners, and as a supplement to prison registers (see fig. 1). The style is very similar to that used to photograph prisoners in Pentonville Prison at about the same period.8

In 1889 the photographer begins to use a mirror so that the profile, as well as the front view, is included in a single shot. In 1896 the technique changes completely; the photographer takes two facial shots, one face on, one in profile, we no longer see the prisoner's torso, and prison uniform is more rarely seen.

Albums two and three are well indexed by surname, volume one incompletely so, while the index to volume four is lacking. Where the volumes are indexed, however, it is a straightforward process to find named individuals within them. The index normally states a register number, which appears to be a running serial number that starts again at one each 1 April; the prisoner's surname and first names, including aliases; the page of the album on which the photograph appears; and the reference number relating to the inmate in a nominal register of prisoners (a volume and page number, e.g. 7/43). The photographs themselves are labelled with the name of the prisoner, the register number and a date.

The subjects of many of the photographs can be found in the nine surviving nominal registers of prisoners in Reading Gaol deposited at Berkshire Record Office.9 They cover the period 1889-1915, but with significant gaps, and are not indexed. Registers recording male and female prisoners together cover the period 1889-1894, although that for 1892-1894 is currently not in a fit physical state to be consulted. There is then a gap (which includes the period of Oscar Wilde's incarceration) until a register of women only for the period 1905-1915 and four registers of men only covering 1908-1915. The final register is of Aliens and Irish, and dates from 1916-1918 when Reading Prison was used as a place of internment during the First World War. There are no photographs of these "enemy aliens".

Because not all the nominal registers have survived, the BRO references do not correspond to the original register volume numbers to which the photograph indexes refer. The first surviving nominal register, for example is volume seven. However, the date on the photograph should lead the researcher to the correct volume.

The nominal registers include the prisoner's name, the time and place of hearings of their case, their offence, sentence, education, height, hair colour, trade or occupation, religion, birthplace, number of previous convictions, discharge date and comments. The photographs and registers therefore complement each other, the former showing the person in black and white, the latter adding the hair colour and height and details of their past. However, not every name in the nominal registers has a photograph. Certainly, no-one convicted at a Petty Sessions court appears, but nor do all those tried at Assizes or Quarter Sessions. It seems unlikely that Oscar Wilde's photograph was taken as his name is not in the index to the appropriate album. Several prisoners appear more than once.

A few examples will serve to show how the albums and nominal registers may be used together to build up a picture of individual prisoners. Further information can also be gained from calendars of prisoners and from the records of the court at which the prisoners were tried. This may have been the Berkshire county or borough Quarter Sessions, the records of which are held at BRO, but is just as likely to have been the Assizes, the records of which are held at the Public Record Office, or Quarter Sessions of counties and boroughs beyond Berkshire.

Figure 2 shows a page from the fourth album as it appeared before conservation.10 The first photograph on the third row is labelled G Rotzoll, is dated 17.1.13 and has the reference number 2871. This reference appears in the nominal register covering 1913 which tells us that the prisoner's name was George Rotzoll alias Willy Strauss, and that he had been transferred to Reading from Portsmouth Prison.11 He was a waiter, born in Germany, who stated his religion to be Church of England. He was 23 years old, five feet and one inch tall with brown hair. He was convicted at the Berkshire Assizes on 11 January 1913 on two counts of larceny, for which he received two concurrent sentences of three months, and one count of false pretences for which he was sentenced to one month hard labour.12 It was also recommended that he be expelled from the country despite the fact that he has no previous convictions. It was noted that the appropriate form had been sent to the Secretary of State and his photograph was stamped with the words "expulsion order".

Figure 2

Next to George Rotzoll is the photograph of M Finch, also dated 17.1.13, with the reference number 5o6. She does not appear in the same register as Rotzoll because she is a woman, for which there is a separate volume.13 Her entry in this register records that her full name was Mary Finch and that she was a 36 year old laundress from Chester. She was five feet and one inch tall with light brown hair. She was committed for trial on 6 January 1913 at Beaconsfield, convicted at the Buckinghamshire Assizes on 11 January of larceny in a dwelling house of goods of value above £5, and sentenced to six months hard labour. She had 15 previous convictions. The entry also records the nominal register reference to her most recent conviction so that her criminal career can be traced further back if the relevant register survives. She was transferred to Holloway Prison on 24 January 1913.

The third photograph on the row above Rotzoll and Finch is labelled J Saunders, is dated 3.1.13 and bears the reference number 2907. The relevant nominal register records John Bellingham Saunders, aged 16 and two months, a labourer born in Aldershot.14 He was committed for trial at Wokingham on 28 November 1912 and convicted at the Berkshire Quarter Sessions on 3o December for stealing a purse and ring. He received a sentence of 18 months at borstal, where he was transferred on 21 January 1913.15 A note records that his escort took Saunders' photograph and finger prints with him.

Because he was convicted at the county Sessions, we can trace Master Saunders in the records of the court, which are held at Berkshire Record Office. The relevant calendar of prisoners elaborates a little on the nominal register.16 It tells us that he was an errand boy and was convicted on two indictments, the first for stealing an antique purse and ring, the property of Thomas Martin, and the second for stealing seven shillings from Catherine Eliott Lockhart. Both offences took place in Wokingham and he pleaded guilty to both. He received two sentences of 18 months but to run concurrently. A record of Saunders' conviction also appears in the relevant Quarter Sessions order book but does not add any additional information.17

Until recently, the albums had not been fit to consult because the sewing was loose and the binding, which was half suede leather, was very badly damaged. Most of the photographs, as well as the album paper, were also dirty, and many of the pages were torn. The Record Office's conservation staff have recently finished their work of cleaning and conserving the photographs. It was not possible to restore any of the binding, so the photographs are now in melinex (inert plastic) sleeves which have been bound in post binders with new covers, held together by screws rather than sewn. They are now available for consultation and are sure to bring to life the black sheep, and the unfortunates, of many a family.


fig. 1. BRO P/RP1/5/2
fig. 2 BRO P/RP'/5/4
I am grateful to Roberta Ciocci for the information concerning conservation of the photographs.


1 BRO P/RP1/5/1-4
2 Hawkings, D. T., Criminal Ancestors: A Guide to Historical Criminal Records in England and Wales (Alan Sutton, Stroud, 1992), pp. 214-215
3 Southerton, P., Reading Gaol by Reading Town (Berkshire Books, 1993), p.40
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.,p 54
6 BRO D/EX 485/2/2-4
7 Southerton P. 32
8 See illustration in Hawkings p. 232
9 BRO P/RP1/1/1-9
10 BRO P/RP1/5/4
11 BRO P/RP1/1/8
12 Abbreviated to "h.l." in the register
13 BRO P/RP1/1/4
14 BRO P/RP1/1/8
15 The borstal system for the detention of offenders between the ages of 16 and 21 was introduced in 1908. It was named after the former convict prison at Borstal, Kent, where the system was pioneered. See Southerton PP.5-6
17 BRO Q/S039 (indexed)

Elizabeth Hughes was born and educated in Reading. After studying for her B.A. at Durham University, she gained her Diploma in Archive Administration at University College London. She worked at Hampshire Record Office in Winchester for ten years, then moved in 1992 to the post of Senior Archivist at Berkshire Record Office, where she is in charge of the public service. She has been a part-time tutor for the extra-mural departments of Oxford, Reading and Southampton Universities and for her husband's archaeological and historical tour business. She is also Honorary Secretary of the British Records Association and a member of the shadow South East Regional Archives Council. In what little spare time she has she tries to keep the garden and the cat in cheek and enjoys choral singing and watching old films.

Additional information