The Architecture of Robert Adam(1728-1792)

Edinburgh Bridewell - Influences

Jeremy Bentham - Panopticon, or the Inspection House


Prison in late 18th
Century Scotland

Robert Adam's Designs for the Bridewell

Scottish Politics and the Bridewell Designs




Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), was a British philosopher who is best known for proposing the doctrine of Utilitarianism, the "greatest good for the greatest number of people". He was born in London, the son and grandson of lawyers. He was a child prodigy, reading serious works at the age of three, playing the violin at five and studying Latin and French at six. At 12 he entered Queen's College, Oxford and studied law, graduating in 1764. He studied law at Lincoln's Inn and was admitted to the bar, but did not practice.

Bentham lived during a period of major social, political and economic changes. The American War of Independence and the French Revolution occurred during his lifetime, as did the Industrial Revolution with its social upheavals, population movements and the rise of the middle classes. Bentham spent his life reflecting on and writing about these changes, writing about philosophical issues particularly relating to the nature of law, as well as making or directly influencing proposals for 'practical' ideas for the reform of social institutions.

Bentham was a central figure for the Philosophical Radicals, whose members included James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill who founded and edited the Westminster Review, which served as an outlet for their ideas for social and political reform.

Much has been written on Bentham's life and work and a lot of information can be found about him on the Internet. His ideas had a great influence on the reforms of the 19th century in the administrative machinery of the British government, on criminal law, and on procedure in both criminal and civil law. His work has had an important and lasting influence internationally on political philosophy and in the development of political and legal institutions and many of his practical ideas for the reform of social institutions have been implemented. For example the concept of the secret ballot was his idea. Bentham was made an honorary citizen of the fledgling French Republic in 1792 and his book The Theory of Legislation was published first, in French, by his Swiss disciple, Etienne Dumont, in 1802.

During his life Bentham struggled financially, but an inheritance received in 1796 gave him financial stability.

After Bentham died in 1832, and in accordance with his wishes, his body was used for dissection and his skeleton, provided with a wax head, is now kept in a glass case at University College, London, which he helped to found.

Panopticon, or the Inspection House
One of Bentham's practical ideas for the reform of social institutions, was for a new kind of prison he termed the Panopticon or Inspection House. The concept, put simply, is for a circular prison building with a central observation room from which all cells are visible, but from which the observer is invisible. In the case of prisons and related buildings this made supervision far easier, and required fewer staff to run making the prison cheaper to run.

Bentham published his proposals for in three volumes. Volume 1 takes the form of a series of letters expounding the idea od an Penitentiary Panopticon. Volume 2 is a Postscript I to Volume 1, reviewing and modifying some of the ideas. Volume 3 is a proposed plan of management for a Penitentiary Panopticon.

In the first of the volumes Bentahm states that he the idea for the Panopticon was his younger brother Samuel's. Samuel, working for the Russian Government, had devised the circular "Elaboratory" or "Inspection House" for the naval arsenal at Kritchev(?), to allow a few skilled supervisors to control and oversee the work of a large number of unskilled men. Actually recent research has shown that similar ideas of centralised observation had been tried in the design of mills in Northern England prior to this.

Bentham saw other applications for this "utilitarian" design, not just for manufacturing but for many types of institutional buildings including workhouses, hospitals, mad-houses, prisons of various kinds and even schools.

After his return to England in 1788 and for many years thereafter, Bentham pushed the idea of the Panopticon, with the hope that it would gain general acceptance and be taken up by the authorities. In the end the only (partial) implementation of a Panopticon was in Edinburgh, where the concept was used by the architect Robert Adam in his designs for a new Bridewell and jail for the city.

Panopticon and the Bridewell
When Robert Adam started the designs for the Bridewell he had not come across Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon concept. He was introduced to the idea by a friend Bentham's, Reginald Pole Carew (see letters below) and was clearly taken with the idea, which he described as "one of the most ingenious plans I ever saw". Given the political situation in Scotland at the time, Adam may have realised that the additional high security that a prison based on the Panopticon concept could deliver, along with the much-vaunted financial benefits of running a prison designed on these lines, might give him the edge in gaining the commission.

He clearly hoped to elicit Bentham's support for this, going on to write that he wished to

"get his aid to endeavour to influence our Magistrates here, who are attached to Mr Blackburn's Ideas, and join with me in shewing them the infinite superiority of Mr Bentham's Inspection principle over his, and everything of the kind hitherto thought of."

The Panopticon concept was used by Adam in three of the unbuilt designs discussed in these essays, in Castle Style Version 2, Version 3 and Version 4.

In Version 2 the Panopticon is not properly implemented. The idea calls for all areas under supervision to be visible from the central observation position, but in this design the cells are double-banked, and the outer cells (for sleeping) not visible for "inspection". In versions 3 & 4 the idea is fully developed, with the invisible inspection principal being used not just for the cells but also the exercise yards and perimeter walls and for the external defensive positions proposed.

It was probably ecomonics that dictated that the Bridewell as built most closely resembled the Version 2 design, which was really only a partial implementation of Bentham's ideas. When Bentham found out he wrote to James Adam (Robert was dead by this time) requiring an interview. The tone of the letter conveys his considerable displeasure at the departure of the design from the original concept.

The political situation in Scotland and its possible influence on the designs for the Bridewell is covered elsewhere in these essays. It is perhaps ironic that an idea dreamt up by a radical political and moral thinker like Bentham should have been used in the design of a building that may (at least covertly) have been intended to repress the implementation of such radical thought.

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Prison in late 18th Century Scotland

Robert Adam's Designs for the Bridewell

Scottish Politics and the Bridewell Designs





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