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The Curious Mr Howard: Legendary Prison Reformer Hardcover – 6 Jun 2011
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'No-one who reads this wonderful book could dispute that Howard ranks among the most interesting people of his age': Times Literary Supplement. 'A brilliant book which everyone should have on their Xmas list': Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons 'A riveting account of the great penal reformer, this humane, obsessive, guilt-ridden, lonely dissenter, indeed the "curious Mr Howard"': guardian.co.uk (click for full review) 'An excellent account, well worth reading. Recommended': Bedford Architectural Archaeological & Local History Society 'Impeccably researched and fascinating': Professor David Wilson, Centre for Applied Criminology Birmingham City University 'A remarkable book about a remarkable man': Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC. 'A much better picture of penal reformer John Howard than I had believed possible': Dick Whitfield, trustee and former chair of the Howard League 'This book is a timely reminder of the dreams that inspired one man many years ago, and a reminder that we need John Howard as much or more today': Clive Stafford-Smith (from the Foreword)
About the Author
Tessa West has worked in prisons and on prison-related matters for many years. While head of a prison education department she was awarded a Cropwood Fellowship at the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge. Among other things, she worked for the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Department in Vienna and was an independent member of the Parole Board. In respect of The Curious Mr Howard she was given the Arthur Welton Award which enabled her to carry out research in Ukraine (where John Howard died). She is the author of Prisons of Promise (Waterside Press, 1997) and three novels.
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An appreciation by Phillip Taylor MBE and Elizabeth Taylor of Richmond Green Chambers
Whether this book by Tessa West will end up on the best-seller list of fascinating biographies remains to be seen -- it has only just been published by the Waterside Press. But if it doesn’t, it ought to!
Not only is it meticulously researched, it’s a riveting read. Not only does it deliver enlightening insights into the life and achievements of prison reformer John Howard, it does a good job of throwing further light on a bygone age, labeled by most historians, accurately or not, as the Age of Enlightenment.
If the name ‘John Howard’ doesn’t ring an immediate bell, the name of the famed “Howard League for Penal Reform” no doubt does. John Howard is an example of how just one individual, however eccentrically brilliant, controversial and perhaps unconventional, can make a difference by changing hearts, minds and attitudes worldwide.
As his biographer, Tessa West explains, the reputation of John Howard (1726-1799), rests squarely on his philanthropy and his efforts as a prison reformer. His key achievements were to visit numerous prisons in the British Isles and in many other counties, record the terrible conditions he found and, in 1777, publish his findings in “The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with Preliminary Observations and an Account of some Foreign Prisons and Hospitals”, with the intention of convincing people of the need to improve prisons.
The book covers the entire span of Howard’s life. That he was indefatigable and eccentric there is no doubt.
What is doubtful is that he was in any way mad, or seriously disturbed, or that, if he had lived today, he would have been diagnosed as suffering from autism or Asperger’s Syndrome… which West more or less dismisses, although she concedes that, looking at Howard through this lens, does offer some perspective on his peculiarities, which apparently included the following: a sense of urgency; a fetish for punctuality; anxiety and depression (he lost his mother in childhood and was widowed twice); a need for routine; and difficulties with eye contact.
Sounds pretty normal to us! ‘How typically English’, foreigners might say. And if all these symptoms and syndromes combined to create a John Howard, well, what a fortunate combination, at least for generations of prisoners worldwide.
Prisons in Howard’s time were used mainly for people on their way to the scaffold, or transportation. Apparently, there were both public and private prisons, the latter being ‘little purgatories’ -- halfway houses between imprisonment and liberty.
Bedlam, of all places, was in this category. West shares the insights of her amazingly detailed research into original sources to reveal just what these establishments were like before ‘The Curious Mr Howard’ established himself almost single-handed as the champion of the most despised people on earth.
Prison reform, however, was only one of Howard’s many interests and accomplishments, which the book enumerates in some detail. A man of independent means, Howard was an inveterate traveller who, in addition to the Grand Tour, undertook journeys as far afield as the Ukraine, where eventually he died. The longer and more hazardous the journey apparently, the better he liked it. He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Society of Arts.
This factual and readable account of Howard’s eventful and productive life offers a wealth of eye-opening revelations. Definitely this volume is a must-read, not just for anyone interested in social history, or criminology or the eighteenth century, but for the general reader. Biographies can be awe-inspiring, informative and just a trifle heart-breaking and this is one of them.