John Howard was the son of a deeply religious Englishman. He lived on a family property in Cardington, near Bedford. There, his habit of exact observation on natural history led to his work for the Royal Society, despite his weak health. He tried to help tenants on the property by providing better housing and paying for the education of children (23 girls and boys at one point).
(1726 – 1790)
While in Bedford, John Howard attended the Baptist congregation and lived quietly, close to his friend, Richard Price (famous for his pamphlet on civil liberty in America). Later John Howard also met John Wesley as well as John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim’s Progress).
On a trip to Portugal, John Howard first became aware of the horrors of prisons when the British merchant ship on which he was traveling was captured by a French privateer. He and his fellow passengers were kept below deck in subhuman conditions for the rest of the voyage.
He was transferred to an even worse setting in a French dungeon. Eventually, John Howard was traded for a French naval officer. In 1773, John Howard was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire. Now in charge of the English jail, he was shocked by the abysmal conditions of the cells.
It was here that John Howard seriously began his quest for prison reform, wanting to abolish atrocities, such as the wearing of spiked collars and chains and prisoners paying their jailers for release. He visited almost every county in England, Wales and Scotland traveling no fewer than 7,000 miles in 1779 alone.
John Howard assembled his experiences and observations into a booklet entitled “The State of the Prisons”, which was published in 1777 and which eventually formed the foundation for what is known as the Penitentiary Act of 1779. In his book, John Howard argued passionately, as he demonstrated in his life, that “every citizen must ultimately accept responsibility for the Criminal Justice System of the society in which he/she lives”.
He visited many countries in Europe, where his objective was to obtain access to prisons, unfettered by official restrictions so that he might form an independent judgment as to whether the boasted clemency of some governments was fact or fiction.
John Howard died of the Plague in 1790, ironically while investigating the terrible prison conditions in Russia. On his tomb were engraved the words: “Whosoever Thou Art Standest at the Grave of Thy Friend”.
John Howard ~ An Appreciation
By Rev. William E. Hart
It is my privilege to write a few introductory thoughts on this fine tribute to the life and influence of John Howard. I think the Rev. William E. Hart has performed a praiseworthy service to the penal reform movement in Canada. I believe his is the most ambitious project to explain Howard and summarize his finding that has bene attempted in this country.
Others have made useful references but none, I think, has assembled so much important material or arranged it in such a useful format. The Honorary Life President of the John Howard Society of Saint John, New Brunswick, has brought out this “Appreciation”, as he calls it, at an appropriate time. John Howard Societies have been formed across Canada from Vancouver, BC to St. John’s NFLD. Thousands of Canadians have come to know the name possesses limited knowledge and understanding of the man himself. Mr. Hart’s treatise will serve as a useful information text book on the John Howard story and tradition.