Biography of John Howard

Many people are curious about the name John Howard Society and you may be interested in learning a little more about this famous man and why we are proud to be known by his name.


John Howard was born in England in 1726, the son of a well-to-do London tradesman. At the age of 16 he inherited considerable wealth when his father died.


In Lisbon in 1755 there was a great earthquake that left thousands homeless and Howard set out for Lisbon to see what help he could give the people. On the way the French captured his ship and he was placed in a dungeon with other prisoners of war. It was a dark, damp, filthy place where they spent many hours without food and a whole week without any bedding except a little straw. This dungeon was doubtless the birthplace of Howard's intense interest in prisoners and prison reform. However, he soon managed to arrange an exchange for himself and his fellow prisoners.


After his return to England he lived on his country estate where he improved the conditions of his tenants, giving them better cottages and providing schools. This kind of concern was almost unheard of in his day and shows his independent mind and his interest in others.


In 1773 he became Sheriff of Bedford. This was usually a more or less honorary post, with most responsibilities being left to deputies. With his usual characteristic thoroughness and conscientiousness, John Howard entered into all the duties of the position. He sat in court during trials, visited every cell in the gaols of his county and considered every prisoner's case closely. At this time Sheriffs, gaolers and other officials connected with prisoners did not get fixed salaries; they just got fees that they legally or illegally extorted from prisoners.


When a person was sent to gaol he had to pay fees to the gaoler, even if later he was found to be not guilty. If he was unable to pay the fee, he was sent to gaol until he paid it. This injustice was the first thing that aroused John Howard's interest. He wanted to have the system changed so that the gaolers would be paid a fixed salary and would not have to extract fees from prisoners.


In his efforts to understand the situation better, he visited the gaols of several counties and was horrified by the conditions he found. Namely -- dirt, dampness, insufficient food and water, unventilated underground cells, over-crowding, human filth allowed to accumulate, cruelty, gaolers dispensing beer and liquor in the gaols for their own profit, allowing men from the outside to come in and carouse with the prisoners to increase the sale of liquor and allowing orgies to go on unhindered.


John Howard now began to devote himself to a searching investigation of prisons. He rode on horseback hundreds of miles through England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland studying conditions. It is believed that he visited every prison in these regions and every prisoner in every cell of each prison. He also went to the Continent to study gaols and found that the gaols were fewer, emptier, cleaner, more cheerful and better supplied with food and clothing. The reason for this was that in these countries the prisoners were put to work and not left in idleness as in England.


After three years of investigation, John Howard wrote a full report on prison conditions in England and other countries. He quietly had his report published at his own expense and then distributed free copies. The impact upon Parliament and the public was tremendous. Public opinion was aroused and many improvements were made in the gaols.


Two particular incidents may be related which illustrated the courage and determination of this man. On one occasion he deliberately boarded a ship infected with the plague in Turkey so that he would be put into strict quarantine in prison upon landing at Venice, and this enabled him to study conditions there at first hand for forty days. On another occasion, after helping to expose conditions in the Bastille in France, he was denied entry into the country under threat of being put into the Bastille himself. However, so determined was he to make his investigations of gaols in France, that he disguised himself as a doctor and entered the country. His identity was discovered and he had to flee.


John Howard died of a fever in Russia in 1790.