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Churchill and the Prisons

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Churchill in 1911

When Winston Churchill was appointed Home Secretary in 1910, he became the British leader in charge of the prison system. His 20-month tenure as Home Secretary is examined in a recent book by Alan Baxendale, who sadly died in 2010 just as his book was published. The 2011 imprint of his book, entitled Before the Wars: Churchill as Reformer (1910-1911) features a foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert, author of the definitive multi-volume biography of Churchill.

Baxendale himself was an authority on the prison system, having been the first professional educator to serve as Chief Education Officer to the Home Secretary (1967-1985). This slim volume is a fine memorial to an equally fine public servant.

The early portion of the book is taken up with a biographical sketch of the two principal players Churchill worked with as a cabinet minister insofar as the prison system was concerned (as Home Secretary he had many other duties). These are Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise, who became Chairman of the Prison Commission at age 37 in 1895; he retained the post until 1921. The other is Sir Charles Troup, the permanent under-secretary of state in the Home Office during Churchill's tenure.

These were the days of great civil servants. Troup retired in 1922 after 40 years of service. "In view of Troup's role in the making of the Home Office during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is strange that no major study of him has appeared," writes Baxendale. Brise, by contrast, has had the good luck of attracting a biographer. Churchill himself paid tribute to Brise as being "at the head of the movement for Prison Reform."

This was at the heart of Churchill's attitude towards the prisons- he was adamant the system be reformed as far as possible in an age when treatment of prisoners was often only one or two steps removed from the days of cruel barbarism. "Churchill possessed genuine compassion, was sensitive to the economic and social conditions of those less privileged than himself, wanted to improve their lives, even when they were imprisoned," writes Baxendale. He cautions however, that this should not be confused with sentimentality. Churchill believed suffragettes should be forcibly fed when they went on hunger strikes, and he was in favour of capital punishment.

His primary concern was to "effect a reduction in the size of the prison population," and much of the book looks at how he proposed to accomplish that. Also considered is the availability of books, lectures and concerts to improve their minds, and aid to discharged convicts, topics that Churchill was very keen to promote. In these and other topics the author gives summaries of the memoranda that flowed between Churchill and his Home Office colleagues, showing how policy was formulated and brought before Parliament. It is curious that the Lunacy Act of 1890 is nowhere mentioned, as it featured in a parliamentary question to Churchill within weeks of his appointment as Home Secretary in connection with a perfectly sane man who was committed to a lunatic asylum for a year. The book does consider how best to deal with "weak-minded" people, but unfortunately it does not cover those incarcerated for lunacy.

Just three months before Baxendale died in 2010 (and thus too late to appear in the book), the legacy of Churchill's prison reforms was brought back to life when the Justice Minister was accused of being too liberal in his prison policy. The cudgels were taken up by Crispin Blunt, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the justice ministry, who refers to Churchill's speech to Parliament on prison reform in 1910.

"The quality that shines through Churchill's speech is his humanity towards the offender. And we should not blind ourselves to the fact that in some ways we have made pitifully little progress since 1910," Blunt said.

"When Churchill proposed his reforms in 1910, he was accused of being "soft" on crime by some who did not actually choose to look at what he had proposed. Some things don't change. Serious offenders who commit serious crimes are still going to go to prison. What the justice secretary called for was a more sensible way of dealing with offenders." Blunt, invoking the memory of Churchill, said: "We are doing this because, as Churchill told the Commons, the first principle of prison reform: "should be to prevent as many people [as possible from] getting there at all'."

The text of the book ends on page 174, but it continues to page 231 with extensive and professionally researched notes, bibliography and an index. Despite a vast number of books about Churchill, this one has found a niche no other has covered so extensively and is thus an essential reference for any Churchill devotee.

Before the Wars is a softcover book listed at $31.95 from Peter Lang Publishers. Visit their website:

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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