William Scott's Career as a Prison Warder

(1854 - 1883)


This document contains information on an ancestor, William Scott who served in the Convict Service of England. It is consequently a personal record, but it does include (especially through hyperlinks) copies of various documents that might have general interest as well as photographs of William Scott that might be of interest to those who also have ancestors who had similar service. Such items have not been included in the initial page so as to make access available to those with low bandwidth access. Contributions to enhancing this document are solicited

The Early Years

By 1854, William was 21 years old. He had been at sea for eight or nine years of his life, had traveled the world extensively including trips to Hong Kong in China, Calcutta in India, Capetown in Africa and various places in the Caribbean, including St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. He was an ordinary seaman earning £2 - 15s per month.

William had gone to sea at Chatham, where his parents lived. However, by 1851, William's father, William Sr. had moved his family to Portsmouth and was working in the Convict Service as a Warder, probably at the newly opened Portsmouth Prison, but perhaps on one of the few remaining hulks located there. In his sailing records of this time William, the son, while sailing out of Southampton, gave his home residence as Portsmouth, indicating he was part of the family and was maintaining close family ties to them.

During 1854, after returning from Calcutta, William made several trips to the West Indies. Each of these trips lasted about six weeks and he likely spent a few days at home between voyages. It is probable that it was these visits home which caused him to be interested in following his father into the Convict Service (also refered to as the Prison Service, during these years -- I use both terms).  It certainly seems likely that his father would have been able to secure him the opportunity to apply, and we see in the letter of appointment date 14 November 1854 that he has received an appointment to the prison service as an  Assistant Warder. The Convict Service would be his career for the next 29 years.

The Appointment to the Prison Service

We are fortunate in having a copy of the original offer of employment for William. The document is interesting as regards its form as well as the content of the offer that it tenders. The document is a government form in italic font with a letterhead of "Government Prisons, 45 Parliament Street" (I believe this to be London, which indicates a central control of staffing by the time of the document, 14 November, 1854). It is interesting to look at the terms of employment, which were apparently those offered to all prospective employees, the only variations being the pay, location and rank.

In William's case the offer provides the following information about the start of his career:

  1. there is no application date indicated -- this perhaps indicates that he had been already 'hired' by the governor of the prison at Portsmouth, where his father appears to have been working at this time.
  2. he is to appear at Portsmouth Prison on 22 November 1854, 8 days after the date on the letter.
  3. he is to be paid £52 per annum plus rations of a yearly value of 1? This was a salary of £4 - 6s - 6d per month, quite an increase from his earnings as an ordinary seaman, which had been £2 - 15s per month. The position included lodging and meals (comparable with the arrangements for a sailor, but most would believe better accommodation)

These are the terms of the offer that were specified by 'filling in the blanks'.

In addition to these terms the document specifies a number of other terms.

  1. He would be liable to deductions from his income for clothing and rent of unfurnished quarters, if occupied.
  2. This was to be his sole employment (no moonlighting in this career!) and he must act in strict conformity to the existing Orders and Regulations of the service
  3. The appointment was probationary "until the Authorities of the Prison shall feel justified, by some months' observation of your general capabilities and attention to duty, in recommending either that your Appointment may be confirmed, or your Engagement terminated". The open-ended probationary period is interesting.
  4. He is to sign an attachment, under witness, on joining the prison. We do not have a copy of this attachment but can guess that it was an oath of some sort which probably committed him to 'good behavior' and perhaps which was a testament to a non-criminal background.
  5. He is to pay his own way to the prison to take up the assignment.
  6. The appointment is subject to a medical examination.

Portsmouth Prison in 1854

What kind of Prison service was William going to? Portsmouth was one of several places in England in which the government had recently built prisons. Prison locations were generally located near military installations and the convicts were used as a labour force for the construction of both the prisons and the various military installations. Portsmouth had long been an important military port. During the first half of the century most persons who were convicted and sentenced to an imprisonment of more that a short time, were transferred from local jails to prison hulks (dismasted ships which were moored in various harbours around the country) from where they were transported to Australia for many years or perhaps for life. By 1850 the various colonies in Australia (with the exception of Western Australia which continued to accept some transported prisoners until 1868) indicated they would not accept further shipments of prisoners. This caused changes in the treatment of prisoners in Britain which included the construction of prisons on land and the gradual evolution of rehabilitation processes for prisoners.

Portsmouth prison was opened in 1850 and the last of the hulks in Portsmouth was destroyed by 1854. William therefore reported to the prison in Portsmouth. This was the prison that his father was employed in, as early as the spring of 1851 at the time of the census, and perhaps as early as the opening of the prison.

His Career as a Warder

We have seen that William started his career as a warder at Portsmouth Prison. We will see later that he retired from the Convict Service at Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight. We have limited information on his career during the intervening years. Yet, from various family documents and some items that have been preserved in the family we are able to fabricate some understanding of his career. To date we have not yet been able to gain access to any government records which might be extant and which relate to his service.

One of the questions that arises is whether or not William served in any other prisons. Related to that is the question of when he left Portsmouth Prison and when he started at Parkhurst Prison. We can get some sense of what the answers are by looking at various family documents as well as a few items that have come down in the family.

William married in August, 1856 and the next May he and his wife had a child, named William. At that time his address was 7 Gloucester Street in Portsea and the birth certificate indicates he was an Assistant Warder in the Convict Department. Other children born in 1860 were born at 49 Nile Street in Portsea and that is the address he has at the time of the 1861 census. We also can locate William in Portsmouth in 1869 at the time of the birth of his youngest son William Joseph (the William born in 1857 had died in infancy). Between 1861 and 1869 we have a couple of letters which also place him in Portsmouth. It appears clear that he was in Portsmouth throughout this period and working at Portsmouth Prison. He was promoted in late 1869 and it is likely that he moved to Parkhurst about that time; in any case we have him situated there at the time of the 1871 census. We know that his wife, Mary,  died on the Isle of Wight in 1873 and that he was a warder there at that time. He remarried in 1875 at St. Mary's church in Portsmouth, and gives an address, Stamford St. in Portsmouth, at that time. However this was the address of his mother and sister in 1881 and so he presumably used it to meet the requirement for a wedding by Banns. He retired from Parkhurst and so it appears that he probably spent the years between 1869 and 1883 at Parkhurst Prison.

Promotions During his Career

One of the interesting documents that has come down to us is form No. 406D, the Statement of the Services of an Officer who has left the Convict Department. It is dated 15 January 1883, two days after his retirement. It specifies the career as follows:

Assistant Warder form 22 November 1854 to November 1862
promoted to Warder November 1862 to October 1869
promoted to Principal Warder October 1869 which office he retained until 13 January 1883.

It further state that he left the Service on Superannuation (i.e. he retired on pension) and makes the testament that "He has been a very trustworthy and valuable officer". The document is signed by the Governor of the prison at that time,The signature appears to be "Francis ? North, Major"


In the photograph at left we see William in his uniform as a Principal Warder. Garry Morton of the Wandsworth Prison Museum provided the following comments on the photograph:

"[We can see that] this gentleman is a Principal Warder. You can tell by the larger bullion crown on his cap (known as the 1869 pattern Shako) and the black shoulder knots. Chief Warders had the same crown surrounded with golden laurel leaves and nothing on their shoulders. Basic Warders wore a smaller brass crown.

Only Warders at Convict Prisons carried swords when needed - never in the prison or on the landings. They also carried guns in the form of Carbines. These swords are described as "hangers" and were the same as used by the Police, H.M. Customs and even the Royal Mail.

Principal and Chief Warders carried more ornate and Naval type swords which were not standard issue. They are thought to be privately purchased or even handed down over the years upon promotion. As all Warders came from the British Army and Navy originally, some of these swords were retained from this previous occupation. [The sword shown here] it is definitely one of the individual Naval types which I mentioned"

Some Events in his Career

The fact that we have documents still extant on William's career is an interesting reflection on William's approach to life. He appears to have been a very organized individual. All reports that we have indicate that he was rated very highly by those who supervised him. It appears that he rose to be the highest ranking warder at Parkhurst. In this section we have cover a few documents and the information that we can derive from them. He was clearly the kind of individual who warranted commendation and who ensured that he had records of such that he could use to his benefit when occasion arose. I find it interesting that not a few of his descendents have similar characteristics.

The Convict Ship Adelaide

William made at least two short trips on convict ships -- ships that were transporting convicts from one place to another. We know this because he was careful to obtain letters of commendation from the Surgeons Superintendent of the ships (The Surgeon Superintendent was responsible for the health and well being of the convicts on the ship and basically in charge of the voyage, while the captain of the ship was responsible for the actual running of the ship. All matters pertaining to the convicts were under the control of the supervision of the Surgeon Superintendent).

The first of these trips was on the ship Adelaide. On the 27th of May 1863, on the ship Adelaide, the Surgeon Superintendent, James Harvey wrote a letter commending the services of William Scott in supervising a body of fifty eight convicts for a period of ten days. The Adelaide had been used by the Convict Service for at least two shipments of convicts to Australia in 1849 and 1857. It appears, however, that on this occasion the ship did not go to Australia, but rather to some other colony -- perhaps Bermuda or Gibralter.

The text of the letter is "I hereby certify that William Scott embarked on board the above ship on the 21st inst. in charge of Fifty-eight Convicts from Portsmouth and has conducted himself to my entire satisfaction and willingly co-operated in all arrangements for the discipline and comfort of the prisoners and deserves my warmest recommendation as a good and useful officer on board ship, and who I could willingly recommend for the same duty if required -- having had six days experience of this officers abilities I speak with confidence". The letter is signed "James Harvey, Surgeon Superintendent". The Surgeon Superintendent on the ship was in charge of the voyage as it related to the treatment of the prisoners being transported. He was responsible to ensure the prisoners did not suffer unduly by way of malnourishment, confinement or treatment.

The Convict Ship Clara

The second of these ships was the C.S. Clara (C.S. standing for Convict Ship). The letter is dated 31 January 1864. On this trip William spent some days in charge of a group of convicts. We know that the ship left London on 11 January 1864 (see Bateson, Appendix VI). Bateson does not indicate any stops prior to the ship arriving in Western Australian 13 April, a voyage, he indicates, of 93 days. The letter is dated 31 January at Portland (near Bournemouth) which indicates that the ship had stopped there to onload convicts from the Portland prison. William Scott probably boarded the ship in Portsmouth when the ship stopped there to embark prisoners. It is not clear if their were prisoners on board when the ship left London. It is recorded that at least some of the troops who were to provide guard duty during the voyage boarded at Portland. As a consequence some (and perhaps a majority) of the prisoners had a voyage that did not exceed about 73 days.

The letter is signed by William Crauford (not identified in Bateson's list for that voyage). In it Crauford acknowledges William Scott's service, writing "I hereby certify that Warden Scott from Portsmouth Prison performed his duties on board in a very satisfactory manner". It is signed "William Crauford, Surgeon AW, Superintendent".

These are the only ships on which we know he supervised convicts being transported. However, such transportations were made to Western Australia until 1868 and it is quite possible that he was involved in supervising convicts as the shipments were being made up on other occasions.

Supervising Convicts on the Southsea Esplanade

Part of the work that William and other warders performed was the supervision of convicts working on public works in the area of the Portsmouth Prison. It was the policy of the government to use prison labour for the construction of gun emplacements, other military establishments, prisons, and docks. Such prisoners, at least when such programs started in the 1840's (or perhaps earlier) were in chains and performed their work under the supervision of one or more warders who acted in the role of guards.

We know that William supervised such groups on a regular basis in the latter part of the 1860's, as the result of a congratulatory letter (page 1, page2), dated 1 August 1869, on the occasion of his promotion to Senior Warder (the promotion did not take effect until October, but must have been announced a couple of months early). The signature of the writer is not legible. The text of the letter is "Mr. Scott, I am very pleased to hear of your promotion in the Convict Prison -- I have for many years taken a warm interest in the improvements on Southsea Common -- the entire work has been done by Convict labor under the direction of the several warders from the Prison. I have nearly daily had an opportunity of ascertaining their capabilities and feel great pleasure in bearing testimony (an my personal thanks again) for the energy, judgement and the interest you have at all times felt in the work, and at all times securing the passers by the good conduct of the men under your charge -- Mr. Scott, very faithfully ????"

Recommendation for a new Job

During the mid sixties, William seems to have had an opportunity to have a promotion into a posiiton at the Prison in 1865. We have a copy of a letter written in support of his candidacy (page 1, page 2, page 3) In addition to the comments on his general proficiency, comments which reflect early assessments of his abilities, it is interesting to see the specific comments made with respect to his handwriting and accounting abilities; these were not the skills of the normal warder and it was relevent to highlight them in supporting his suitability for the position. Additionally the letter gives an insight to his family life and phyical appearance.

The Years at Parkhurst

William was a warder at Parkhurst from about 1870 to 1883. Unlike the period when he was a warder at Portsmouth, we have no documents covering his service during these years. We do have a number of items relating to his personal life during this period, but none relating to his activities as a warder.

Retirement and Pension

William retired from the Convict Service on 13 January 1883. He had served for 28 years from his start with the service at the end of 1854. At this time he was just undr 50 years of age. It is not clear whether this was an age related retirement or he had decided to retire on his own volition. While we do not have this information we do have three documents related to his retirement. The first is a receipt for a "Time Piece and Inscription, Plate to Same". (also interesting on this document is the stamp -- an indication of the stamp tax that had alienated Americans in 1776) The receipt is made out to the Officers of Parkhurst prison. Since it is among the papers we have from William, and is dated 3 February 1883, we conclude it is a receipt for gifts given him on his retirement -- it would be nice to know what became of them.

On 15 January the Governor (presumably of Parkhurst Prison) issued a "Statement of the Services of an Officer who has left the Convict Department" which records William's service record and attests to the qulity of his service. In addition to indicating his service it indicates his progress through the various promotions and indicates that he has left the service on superannuation (pension). In addition, a letter of that date gives us more information on his pension arrangements.


He has been awarded a pension of 46/60ths of his pay and emoluments instead of the 28/60ths that would have been his normal entitlement. This is intriguing -- what was the reason for the increased pension allocation? Attempts so far to obtain insight on this matter have not been successful.


William had a very successful career as a Prison Warder. He came out of a relatively poor family, yet by the age of 21 was sufficiently educated and competent that he was able to obtain a probationary appointment as an Assistant Warder. While we do not know at what date this appointment became permanent we do know that he rose through his efforts to become a Senior Warder and in that rank was also described as the Principal Warder at Parkhurst Prison by 1881, two years before his retirement in 1883. The next step in his career could possibly have been as a prison governor, however in those days it appears that such positions were restricted to retired officers of the military; with his background and education he would not have been considered for such a position. What we do know about his career and status comes in part from the impression of his service which was left with his great grandsons. Francis Fry and Ronald Scott, who both spoke of his career achievements in very high terms.

The Crown recognized his service by providing him with a superannuation(pension) that was significantly greater than that to which he seems to have otherwise been entitled. The details of this superannuation are provided in a letter to William from the Governor of the prison, dated 17 February 1883, four days after his retirement. . He is advised that "The Lords Commisioner of H.M. Treasury have awarded him a special retired allowance of annual amount of £93 - 4 - 6  which is calculated at 46/60th of his pay and emoluments instead of the 28/60ths which would otherwise have been his due.

The letter, in our day, raises as many questions as it provides information. Why was this extra allowance granted to William? Was this a last minute thing or was this routine -- had William been planning on a pension at the lower or at the higher rate? Why were the "Lords Commissioner of H.M. Treasury" involved? The annual salary implied by the retirement is £121. This is a fairly high wage for that time. How does this compare with the wages of other warders of the time?

Photographic Album

We are fortunate in having a couple of photographs of William in the uniform of the Convict Service:




Research Required:


[1] The documents reproduced here come from family documents passed down to William's great granddaughter, Iris (Simmons) Groutage. We are grateful to her for preserving these items and making them available for this study.

İKenneth Scott and others

last modified 2 December 2001