An Exceptional Early 19th Century Forged Wrought Iron Body Chain

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Origin: English
Period: Early 19th Century
Provenance: Vernon Cross Esq.
Date: c.1810
Full Length: 77 inches (including curb links)
Individual Link Length: 15 inches
Individual Link Width: 2.5 inches


Having long oval links with short curb links attached for the attachment of padlocks, the chain has a wonderful patina. This is a very rare restraint and one that represents a scarce chance to own a piece of jail history, now, by in large, only housed in museums.

Prisons were very dirty and extremely overcrowded, and thus disease was rife and being sent to prison was often essentially a death sentence. Many prisoners died of typhus, which was then called goal fever.
In the 19th century sanitary conditions in prisons became much better but the regime was very harsh. Convicts were made to do tedious and pointless tasks like turning a handle over and over again.

Using John Howard’s work as a basis, Jeremy Bentham, a health reformer, stepped into the prison forum principally at Abingdon Jail (1804-1812). Bentham had concluded that there were in fact three types of prisons; The House of Safe Custody, the Penitentiary House, and the Black Prison. The Black Prison was the last type of prison Bentham established. This prison offered longer stays than the Penitentiary House.

Semple (1993) describes the Black Prison as follows:
“In the Black Prison, to strike terror into the hearts of its inmates, two skeletons were to lie slumped together one either side of an iron door, thus reminding them that they were indeed an abode of death from which there was no escape.”

This item was owned by Vernon Cross Esq. whose family ran a tea shop in Ely, Cambridgeshire and would exchange tea for interesting bygones.

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