New material to transcribe: the panopticon’s failure and Bentham’s anger

By Tim Causer, on 21 August 2013

A new batch of extremely interesting Bentham manuscripts has just been made available on the Transcription Desk. Box 121 contains a great deal of interesting material relating to Bentham‘s panopticon prison scheme, or rather its failure. This batch of manuscripts, composed mostly in 1802, illustrate Bentham’s anger and sense of betrayal towards the British legislature which, despite having passed the 1794 Penitentiary for Convicts Act, failed to build Bentham’s prison. In Bentham’s eyes, the panopticon had been thwarted by the failure to find a site, first at Battersea Rise, thanks to the opposition of George Spencer (the 2nd Earl Spencer), and then at Tothill Fields owing to the opposition of Richard Grosvenor (1st Earl Grosvenor). Thanks to the vested interests of landlords, Bentham ended up purchasing a small and boggy site at Millbank, and became aware that politicians had little real commitment to the panopticon.

In June 1803, after a campaign of many years, it was clear that the panopticon was to be abandoned. The scheme’s failure was the greatest disappointment of Bentham’s life: ‘They have murdered my best days’, he remarked. The experience left him incensed at the treachery of British politicians, and he turned his attention to detailing their perfidy. According to Bentham, the 1794 Penitentiary Act was for no ‘better or other intention than of serving as a bait for gulling me out of money’’, and in JB/115/145/001, he wrote:

My hairs, already grey, are pointing to the grave. It remains for me to try whether my country be as devoid of faith and feeling, as those whom the jumble of events has given to it for its rulers … It may then be said—simple neglect would have been sufficient: disappointment and ruin, at the end of five years of treachery and oppression, were too much’.

Box 121 contains some of Bentham’s angry outpourings, in an unpublished text entitled A Picture of the Treasury under the Administration of the Rt. Hon. W. Pitt and the Rt. Hon. H. Addington with a sketch of the Secretary of State’s Office under the reign of the Duke of Portland. Written in 1802 and 1803, this is a near-contemporary account of Bentham’s dealings with men in high office, albeit one told from Bentham’s point of view. (From the other side, Charles Long, the junior secretary to the Treasury, came to hate the sight of Bentham hanging around the Treasury, waiting to attempt meetings with him).

It was perhaps during this period that Bentham fully developed the idea of ‘sinister interests’ – that legislators did not necessarily act in the interests of the happiness of those they ruled, but rather to satisfy their own vested interests. By transcribing this set of manuscripts, you will be going some way to exploring this theory, and the timing of Bentham’s conversion into a political radical, convinced of the need for a representative parliament with universal adult suffrage. It seems likely, as Prof. Philip Schofield contends, that it was ‘the panopticon experience which began to convince him [Bentham] that nothing worthwhile could be achieved through the existing political structure in Britain’. (Schofield, Bentham: A Guide for the Perplexed, Bew York, 2009, pp.12-13).

We hope that you enjoy exploring this rich material, and will be happy to help with any questions you may have!