The Long Arm of the Law

Photo of Plymouth Borough Prison

Plymouth Borough Prison, 2003, courtesy PWDRO, Acc: 3450/2

Although the church already banned all male sexual relationships, the first known criminal law against sexual relations between men occurred with the introduction of the Buggery Act 1553. Punishable by death, the last execution for the offence took place in Great Britain in 1836. During the 30 years before this, 404 men were sentenced to death with 56 of them being executed.
The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act abolished the death penalty for buggery. It did however introduce the offence of ‘indecent assault’ which had been common law since the 18th century. Under the 1885 Criminal law Amendment act, any act of “gross indecency” between two men became a criminal offence, whether it occurred in public or private.
This Act was used to famously prosecute OscarWilde for his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde received a two year prison sentence.
In addition to these direct laws, offences such as ‘importuning’ and ‘soliciting’ were used to target gay men. Liquor licensing legislation also targeted taverns, cafes and clubs frequented by gay men and lesbians, for ‘keeping a disorderly house’.
Those who were prosecuted at this time in Plymouth, Stonehouse or Devonport often spent time in one of the local prisons. Devonport Prison, located in Pennycomequick, opened in 1849. It closed in 1878 following the implementation of the 1877 Prison Act which required all gaols to become state controlled. All remaining prisoners were transferred to Plymouth Borough Prison in Greenbank.

Photo - Prisoner turning the crank at Wormwood Scrubs

Prisoner using The Crank at Wormwood Scrubs, Image courtesy of The National Archives

Those sent to Plymouth Prison were often sentenced to ‘hard labour’ which included using ‘The Crank’. This was a large handle attached to a set of cogs, which pushed a paddle through sand. Wardens could tighten up the crank, making it harder to turn: hence their nickname “screws”. Each turn of the handle was recorded. Most prisoners had to complete 10,000 turns a day. Meals came to depend on the required number of turns performed.
Plymouth Prison eventually closed in 1930 and was converted into the local police, fire and ambulance station. The building remained in use until the turn of the century.

Devonport Prison, late 19th Century, image courtesy PWDRO,
© Plymouth Library Services, Plymouth City Council. Acc: 3488/PCC/76/5/3222/1


  1. D, N. Mindenhall says:

    Hi — I am an architectural historian in Victoria, BC Canada; I am writing about the architect Thomas Fuller, architect of the Plymouth Borough Prison, and should like to obtain a high-resolution image similar to this one — preferably without the cars. Would the person who took this image be prepared to take such an image for me? Of course, credit would be given.

    Thank you for any assistance you are able to offer, it will be much appreciated.

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