Police Cells

Imagine if you had been your average reasonably affluent Victorian man or woman who, having gone out to enjoy a few Saturday night libations – or on any day of the week for that matter – and that you had, perhaps, over-imbibed. On your way home, you might be a little exuberant, perhaps even a little boisterous, and your behaviour attracts the attention of a local bobby on the beat.

Somehow or other, you end up in a tussle – or maybe you just follow the natural inclination of the inebriate and you talk back to the police officer when he gives you a telling off and asks you to pipe down.

A police officer wheeling a drunk man on a barrow.
A Policeman Wheels A Drunk Man Through The Streets Of The East End.


Before you know it, the policeman’s patience is exhausted and suddenly you find yourself under arrest and marched off to the nearest police station, where you must spend the night in a cold cell, locked up with some decidedly unsavoury characters and ne’er-do-wells awaiting your court appearance before the magistrate the next morning.

Would you not consider yourself hard done by?

Well, this was an issue that The Graphic decided to highlight in an article that was published on Saturday, 7th April 1877:-


“Not long ago one drunken soldier murdered another in Chelsea Barracks, and now a similar feat has been performed by an insane inebriate in Edinburgh.

We beg to offer a suggestion.

Do away with the cell-system as regards drunken and disorderly persons. If placed together in twos or threes such tragedies as those noted above are apt to occur if alone, suicide is often attempted or accomplished.


Instead of the cells, provide two good-sized well-ventilated apartments for the drunk and disorderly of either sex, with an adequate force of officials in constant attendance.

The quiet drunkards may be left to themselves, but all those who are disorderly when brought in, or who afterwards become insubordinate, should have their feet secured in a species of stocks, which could be easily so arranged as not to prevent them from lying down to sleep.

In very obstreperous cases the arms might be fastened also.


Disorderly drunkenness being such a palpable offence, the ordinary objection that a man ought not to be punished before he is convicted would not hold good besides, as matters now are, a respectable man who is accidentally overtaken in liquor, and who is locked up from Saturday night till Monday morning in company with the veriest scum of the earth, undergoes no trifling penalty.

Another advantage of our plan would be that cases of apoplexy simulating intoxication would be far more likely to be detected if the supposed drunken persons were constantly under the eye of attendants than when, as at present, they are only visited at long intervals of time.”


However, things had not improved for your average middle-class drunk, who found himself on the wrong side of the law following a night on the town in Victorian London, and The Graphic returned to its crusade to improve the lot of the harmless inebriate in its edition of  Saturday, 17th November, 1888:-


“An interesting little discussion took place on this subject in the House of Commons on Tuesday, and we hope the investigation will be pursued until a really permanent improvement has been effected.

At present, it would seem that when a decently-dressed ordinarily well-behaved person is run in for some trifling offence, the penalty which he or she endures by being thrust into an evil-smelling receptacle among disorderly and foul-mouthed prisoners is far severer than that which is awarded next day by the magistrate.

It is, moreover, officially admitted that the police-court cells are usually much overcrowded, so that the unlucky detenu, while waiting to be “brought before the Beak,” often has his overnight annoyances renewed.

This grievance has, however, in some cases been partially remedied by utilising the cells of the police-stations which, in six instances, are attached to the metropolitan police-courts.


Far more than this is needed.

We do not ask for sofas and cheval mirrors, but surely every cell should be well-ventilated, kept fairly warm in the cold weather, and as clean as such places can be. All noisy or disorderly prisoners should be promptly removed from the company of their quieter companions, and there should be a woman warder to look after the needs of members of her own sex.

Such a reform as this ought not to cost much money, and it will probably be quickened rather than retarded by the cessation of the present anomalous arrangement which compels the country at large to defray the cost of the London police-courts.

It would be far more wholesome if this expense were borne by Londoners themselves, for they would then, perhaps, take care to see that they got good value for their money, and that their police cells were not places of torture.”