New material to transcribe: ‘like a great Spider in ye Center of yr. Panopticon’ – the return of Bentham’s prison

By Tim Causer, on 11 September 2013

A further series of fascinating manuscripts have been uploaded to the Transcription Desk: this material from Box 122 of the UCL Bentham Papers details the revival of the British government’s interest in the panopticon penitentiary scheme. As we have mentioned elsewhere, the panopticon was rejected in 1803 as a solution to the problem of treating criminals. Despite his anger at the time, Bentham seemed in 1808 to finally be at peace with this decision, writing to his brother Samuel that ‘JB has next to no expectation of panopticon being set on foot … and at his time of life scarce a wish about it: but that with him it has never been more than a secondary object, his primary object being a reform in the state of the law‘.

However, at the end of 1807 had received a rather rude reminder of the panopticon. The commissioners for auditing the public accounts had requested that Bentham account for the £2,000 of public money voted to him in 1794 for purchasing land on which to build a panopticon. The result of this request was a lengthy and somewhat acrimonious correspondence, some of which can be found amongst these manuscripts: Bentham found it difficult to comply with the commissioners request, not least owing to the passage of time, and his (and Samuel’s) haphazard account-keeping.

Bentham provided some documentation, but this did not satisfy the commissioners, and he was driven to plead with them to accept his verbal testimony. Bentham’s sense of persecution grew: hadn’t the government caused him enough pain over the panopticon? He wrote another account of his treatment, to be found here, bemoaning the commissioners’ unaccountability, and suggesting that he was subjected to ‘the principles of a Venetian Senate … or a Spanish Inquisition‘. Fortunately, the audit board finally accepted Bentham’s testimony in December 1808.

In the following years, the panopticon – somehow – was back on the agenda. Criminals were seen to be convicted at ever-increasing rates, the hulks were notoriously bad, and New South Wales was being viewed as an Arcadia for criminals, rather than as a place of punishment. Though in June 1809, William Wilberforce told Bentham that he was once more going to promote the panopticon, asking him if ‘had still ye Heart to go forward after all your former disappointments‘. Bentham remained very wary: in May 1810, he wrote that he had ‘no such ambition as that of passing the short remainder of my life among the Treasury Porters‘. Wilberforce replied with platitudes, telling Bentham that

After all you have experienced Unless ye way is smooth’d and the doors thrown wide for yr triumphant passage, I would have stir you from ye Chimney Corner … Surely you will not refuse to tend yrself to those who are eager to bring it forward … I am delighted by seeing with my mind’s Eye, your Honour like a great Spider in ye Center of yr. Panopticon‘.

As Janet Semple remarks in her masterful Bentham’s Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary (p. 264), ‘This letter did incalculable harm; first, by luring Bentham with false hopes that were to embroil him in further fruitless labour and public humiliation; and secondly in the use of a vivid metaphor to stamp for ever the image of him as a spider in the midst of his penal web’.

The Treasury contacted Bentham around this time, and he confirmed that he was still willing to serve as governor. On 4 March 1811, a committee was appointed to consider the 1779 and 1794 Penitentiary Acts, chaired by George Holford MP, a known anti-Benthamite. Yet Bentham seemed confident now in the panopticon’s success, recalling later in life that: ‘I assumed all along as a matter of course, that the determination of the Committee and thereafter would be favourable to me‘. Bentham was to be disappointed: he gave evidence on 27 March and 1 April (the latter date proving very apt), and faced frequently hostile questioning. Holford’s report, completed in May, was a damning indictment of the panopticon, and the only crumb of comfort was the conclusion that Bentham should receive financial compensation.

Following the rejection, Bentham returned to complaining of sinister interests and ‘an originally preconcerted plan for setting aside Panopticon‘. He submitted a compensation claim for the astonishing sum of £689,062 11s. (over £23 million in today’s money), for lost profits which would have been earned from the panopticon between 1795 and 1813. Bentham finally settled for the not inconsiderable sum of £23,000 (c. £800,000 today). The panopticon scheme was finally dead.

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