John Howard Reforms Europe’s Prisons

This is the day that … John Howard was born in 1726.

“He was a very earnest Christian, a teetotaller and a vegetarian, whose life was devoted to prison reform” (Dictionary of the Christian Church, page 486).

To appreciate the incredible changes he made in the prison system one should read of the terrible abuses that took place in his day.

Born in the vicinity of London into a wealthy family, he was, however, a sickly child. After school days were completed he was apprenticed to a grocer. Orphaned at the age of 17 he found himself the possessor of “not inconsiderable” riches, so he paid out his indenture (terminating his apprenticeship) and travelled the Continent.

He did much study but became ill on his travels. A widow “nearly twice his age” nursed him back to health and he offered her marriage as a reward for her kind services. He was 25 at the time, November 10, 1755. She died four years later.

John Howard again devoted himself to travel, and married again at the age of 32. A son was born four days before the second Mrs Howard died, on 27 March, 1765.

In 1772 – after more journeying across Europe – he “became engaged in church affairs.” For a while he attended Bunyan’s Chapel in Bedford (Bunyan, of course, no longer being the minister. Bunyan died in 1688).

Then he built a meeting-house “to which he contributed generously” (Twelve Marvellous Men, by E. Enock, page 55).

In the role of High Sheriff of Bedford (a civil appointment usually only available to members of the Church of England) John Howard visited some prisons and saw for himself the inhumane conditions. Thus began his crusade of prison reform. “It is said that he spent 30,000 pounds Sterling of his own money in his reforming activities” (Who’s Who in Christian History, page 330).

He first campaigned that those who ran the gaol should be paid by the county, not the prisoners. This enabled innocent people who had been kept in prison to be immediately released, instead of being held until they could pay the gaoler his fees. He then pressed for sanitation, annual white-washing and scrubbing of the cell walls, industry for the prisoners and more.

His influence stretched to prisons in Europe also … and it was en route from a visit to St Petersburg and Moscow, visiting military hospitals, that he caught Camp Fever from a female patient he attended, and died on 20 January, 1790.

He was buried near the village of Dauphigny on the road to St Nicholas. There is a statue by Bacon to his memory in St Paul’s, London, and one at Bedford by A Gilbert. In personal appearance Howard is described as having been short, thin and sallow — unprepossessing apart from the attraction of a penetrating eye and a benevolent smile. (Jrank Encylcopedia)

“Along with Elizabeth Fry (a devout Quaker) Howard must be awarded pride of place in the cause of prison reform” (Concise Universal Biography, page 783).

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at

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