This special episode of ‘How the Victorian’s built Britain’ focuses on crime and reform, visiting Spike Island Cork where John Crotty talks to host Michael Buerk about the super prison that was Ireland’s Alcatraz in the 1850’s.
The island location became a prison in 1847, the second time in its history it was involved in incarceration. The Victorian era jail opened while the Irish famine raged, and soon became a super prison. It was the largest in the world by the early 1850’s. Over 2400 inmates were crammed into every available building, with some dorms like the timber prison having as many as two hundred men per room! By comparison, Mountjoy Prison which opened in 1851 had room for five hundred inmates, almost 20% the size of Spike’s operation.
The prison remains the largest ever formal prison in Ireland and Britain. It grew so large in part because of the Irish famine, which swelled conviction rates as many committed crimes of survival. But the end of the transportation system also had a significant impact, as Australia started to refuse new convicts who had to remain in their country of origin.
It was an incredible difficult place to survive, with a death of 12% in its worst year. Close to a prisoner a day was dying while in the care of the state, over 280 in one calendar year. This was as a result of close proximity to other inmates promoting the spread of deadly disease, poor sanitation and already weakened prisoners arriving from a country in ruin.
It took a national decision to reduce the conviction of any person sentenced to seven years transportation down to four to see a massive drop in the prison population, with almost seven hundred at Spike Island immediately released.
Read more stories from the Victorian Prison here –
The largest prison in the world – Spike Island prison
The Gravedigger – Dubliner Joseph Dwyer