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John Howard

(1726-90)

English philanthropist and prison reformer. He had great influence in improving sanitary conditions and securing humane treatment in prisons throughout Europe. He was responsible (1774) for persuading the House of Commons to enact a set of penal reform acts.

Born in 1726 in Enfield, England, Howard was the only son of a successful London businessman. He also stood to inherit from his grandmother, Martha Howard, a 100-acre farm at Cardington in Bedfordshire, so the prospect of slipping quietly into business or the comfortable life of a country gentleman loomed large in his future. Early signs indicated that young John's capabilities and interests were limited. He showed no academic prowess and sports held no interest for him. Public service was not open to him, as his non-conformist religious background meant he could not take the Anglican Church Communion Oath required for public office. Subject to severe bronchial attacks, his health was uncertain.

His father was over 40 when John was born. Between his business-focussed father and the death of his mother when he was only five, there was little real family life for young John. John Worsley oversaw the first seven years of his schooling and though a scholar, Worsley was not an accomplished teacher. For a short time he attended John Eames' Dissenting Academy, where he met his lifelong friend, Richard Price. To learn business methods, he was apprenticed to a green grocer.

On his father's death in 1742, 16-year-old John Howard inherited considerable wealth. With the death of his father, his apprenticeship with the green grocer was automatically cancelled. Unsure just what direction to take, the experience and health enhancing properties of travel beckoned. He travelled in Italy and France then returned to England where he lived a quiet, solitary existence. His health still weak, he was attended by his landlady, Sarah Lardeau, whom he married and who died only two years later. In 1756 he again travelled abroad, this time to Portugal.

The packet ship he sailed on was captured by a French privateer and he, and his fellow passengers, were taken prisoner. He was without food or water during the 40-hour trip to Brest and treatment was not much better in the dungeon there, where he spent the next six days. Eventually, after further imprisonment at Morlaix and a period on parole, he was exchanged for a French officer. Rather than just enjoy his freedom, he immediately went to the Commissioner of Sick and Wounded Seamen and succeeded in getting action on behalf of English seamen. That he acted so quickly and effectively was characteristic of him.

John Howard was now 32 years old, and about to enter what was possibly the happiest period of his life. By this time he had adopted a simple vegetarian diet and strict regimen and his health improved. In 1758 he married Henrietta Leeds, a woman of frail constitution but possessing a philanthropic bent that matched her husband's. He enjoyed the peaceful pleasures of being a husband and country gentleman and he proved to be an innovative and enlightened landowner.

As landholder at Cardington, he was responsible for providing housing for the people who worked on his estate. Usually these cottages were small, cramped and dark. John Howard was one of the few landholders of that time that saw the importance of providing good estate housing and he spent considerable money on buying larger cottages and renovating them. It was also a time when conditions at most parish workhouses in Bedfordshire were appalling, yet inventories show those run by Howard at Cardington were well managed. Regular schooling did not exist in Industrial Revolution England, but Howard and his cousin paid for the children on his estate to learn to read.

A Fellow of the Royal Society, he published studies on the meteorological effects of temperature in various locations on his estate. In religion he remained a nonconformist, but tended to honour the spirit of religion in whatever form it took. One of his closest friends was a Unitarian minister and both his wives were Anglican. When he travelled and Sunday found him in a place where there was no Independent Church, he would simply attend the local church, regardless of denomination.

Howard did not mix much socially with his fellow landowners. He shunned large gatherings, preferring the company of a small circle of friends. This later changed as his reputation spread. He gave little thought to dress, none to fashion, and favoured simplicity and neatness. Long after it started to fade from fashion, he continued to dress in the style of a London merchant, with wig, wide-brimmed hat and breeches with stockings. He was a familiar figure in his red vest beneath a salt and pepper frock coat.

By 1765, John Howard's life was a blend of modest but useful activity and domestic harmony. The birth of a son the same year seemed the crowning jewel. Then personal tragedy struck. A week after his son John was born, having returned from church, Henrietta collapsed and died in Howard's arms. His collaborator, and friend, was gone. Though from time to time he considered re-marrying, John Howard remained true to Henrietta's memory and remained single the rest of his life.

Dealing with small children did not come easily to Howard and he had few happy memories of his own childhood. As Howard saw things, it was his duty to provide his son with a good education, so instead of having a loving, attentive nanny, he sent his son John away to school at age four. While there could be much speculation as to why the younger John lived such an ill-starred life, the record shows he was unruly and profligate, spending the last 13 years in an insane asylum, where he died at age 34. Of John Howard and his troubled son, Samuel Whitbread writes, "Young John...was never an hour out of his thoughts.

By 1773, John Howard was 47 years old. While his dearest friends were making their mark in life, Howard had yet to come into his own. Richard Price was gaining public notice for his pamphlet on the National Debt and Samuel Whitbread was achieving considerable status as one of the first brewers to operate on a really large scale. John Howard seemed a study in latent power unused. It was at this point that a seemingly unspectacular turn of events proved to be the catalyst that would transform John Howard's life from the obscure to the heroic.

John Howard was the appointed sheriff of Bedfordshire (1773). As part of his duties, he inspected Bedford jail and was appalled by the unsanitary conditions there. He was also shocked to learn that the gaolers were not salaried officers but depended on fees from prisoners and that some prisoners had been acquitted by the courts but were kept in prison because they had not paid their fees. His main criticisms were against the prison system of England. In 1774 Howard persuaded the House of Commons to pass two acts that stipulated (1) that discharged persons should be set at liberty in open court and that discharge fees should be abolished and (2) that justices should be required to see to the health of prisoners. Years afterward, however, Howard complained that the acts had not been "strictly obeyed."

In the 18th century the local justices administered prisons. Gaolers made their living by charging for board and lodging. No distinction was made between prisoners who might be awaiting trial, debtors, and convicts awaiting transportation to the American colonies. His report 'The State of the Prisons' (1777) spurred a sweeping movement to reform the system in England, to make it more humane.

Howard continued to travel widely, touring Scotland, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland, often visiting local prisons. He was largely responsible for a parliamentary statute of 1779 that authorised the building of two penitentiary houses where, by means of solitary confinement, supervised labour, and religious instruction, the reform of prisoners might be attempted. This act, however, like those of 1774, was never effectively enforced.

Parliament passed two more prison Acts, in 1778 and 1781. John Howard was aware that although the laws had been passed that did not automatically ensure the changes would be made quickly, so he continued touring the prisons of England and Europe. He not only collected information about conditions, but also revisited many to monitor the progress of reforms. For the next several years, John Howard worked ceaselessly, making five more tours of European prisons, as well as visiting those in England. He kept up with his responsibilities at his Cardington estate as well. Health matters concerned him increasingly, inspiring him to publish a second book in 1789 on "Lazarettos", the plague ships.

His stamina became legendary. It was hard to imagine that he was once a sickly, delicate youth. He could ride 40 miles a day, needed little sleep and could withstand considerable heat and cold. On one of his trips to Ireland he gave up his berth to a maid servant and slept on deck. He maintained his simple vegetarian diet of fruit, vegetables, bread and milk or tea. One of the reasons he chose travelling by horseback was to disperse the bad odours from the jail he had been visiting, although he took pains to change his clothes as soon afterwards as possible. In 1786 he even travelled to Venice on a plague-infested ship in order to observe firsthand the conditions on a "Lazaretto". However, his spartan regimen cannot account for all of his extraordinary ability to withstand the physical demands, pestilence and filth of his prison tours. His friends observed that by this time John Howard possessed an air of purpose, serenity and vigour that seemed to surround him like a magic cloak.

John Howard was in demand by royalty and aristocrats. In Austria he dined with Empress Maria Teresa and on a later trip, had a long visit with Emperor Joseph. To many he was a hero, but he had lived most of his life an unknown and was, by nature, modest and self-effacing. He had made such an impact on the public that when some decided to pay him tribute in the form of a monument, large sums of money were collected almost overnight. Though these funds were later returned or diverted.

He travelled throughout England and Europe to examine the prisons and reported on the conditions to Parliament. He was even called upon by Catherine the Great to assist in reforming the Russian judicial system. He spent the last years of his life studying means of preventing plague and limiting the spread of contagious diseases. In late 1789, Howard once more set off for Eastern Europe. Almost as though he knew it would be his final journey, he had taken special pains to leave his affairs at Cardington in order and to bid fond farewells to his dearest friends. Travelling in Russia in 1790, and visiting the principal military hospitals that lay en route, he reached Kherson in Ukraine. In attending a case of camp fever (typhus) that was raging there, he contracted the disease and died on January 20, 1790 at the age of 64. He was buried in Russia and the inscription on his tomb conveys so much of the simple, unconditional, caring essence that was John Howard: "Whosoever thou art, thou standest at the grave of thy friend".

Upon his death came all the tributes he forbade during his lifetime, including a statue of him in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. It was the first time a commoner had been so honoured. His friend, Sam Whitbread, who knew him well wrote: "From the throne to the dungeon, his name was mentioned with respect, gratitude and admiration". One who grieved as much as any was Howard's gardener at the Cardington estate, Joshua Crockford, even 23 years later, could not speak of his former master without tears.

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Last Updated on: 15 March 2000
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