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Prisons, Courts & Police Stations in Historical Perspective

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice

Friday, 17 May 2019 from 10:30 to 16:30 (BST)

Prisons, Courts & Police Stations in Historical...

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General Admission
One day conference - please inform us of any dietary requirements
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Event Details

The Architecture of the State
Courts & Police Stations in Historical Perspective


Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice


Friday 17th May 2019


The Open University, Library (Seminar Rooms 1 & 2, 2nd Floor),
Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA


A key aspect of the development of the modern criminal justice system in Britain has been the construction of a physical infrastructure of courts, prisons and police stations. While the purpose and day to day operation of the mechanisms of criminal justice have been well-studied, the physical places and spaces wherein the state interacts with, and exerts authority, over citizens, have received comparatively little attention. This one day conference will bring together scholars working to unearth the historical and contemporary form and function of courtrooms, prisons and police stations. It will consider not only their physical construction and how this has changed over time but will also consider the changing social function and meaning of these important and symbolically charged spaces.



10.30 – 11.00   Arrival, Tea/Coffee/Biscuits


Session 1        Prisons (Chair: Rosalind Crone, Open University)


11.00 – 11.45   Yvonne Jewkes (University of Bath) ‘The modern architecture of incarceration: from spectacular statement of sovereign power to (an)aesthetic symbol of public indifference’


11.45 – 12.30   Zoe Alker (Liverpool University) ‘Streets of Crime: Criminal Life Courses, Carceral Geographies and Immersive Environments’


12.30 – 13.15   Lunch


Session 2        Courts (Chair: Drew Gray, University of Northampton)


13.15 – 14.00   Linda Mulcahy (University of Oxford) ‘The Democratic Courthouse’


14.00 – 14.45   Rhiannon Pickin (Leeds Beckett University) ‘”He only stole a loaf of bread!” Popular Narratives of Historical British Courtrooms’


14.45 – 15.00   Tea/Coffee break


Session 3        Police Stations (Chair: Paul Lawrence, Open University)


15.00 – 15.45   Andrew Millie (Edge Hill University) ‘Visible Policing: The Symbolic Power of Police Stations’


15.45 – 16.30   Gonçalo Goncalves (University of Rio) ‘Police Stations and the Visibility of State Authority in Portugal, c.1870-1940’


16.30                Close






The modern architecture of incarceration: from spectacular statement of sovereign power to (an)aesthetic symbol of public indifference
Professor Yvonne Jewkes (University of Bath)

More than simply impressive feats of engineering, the embellished aesthetic coding of the Victorian prison subtly transformed it into something other than mere human containment. In more recent times, however, the (an)aesthetics of imprisonment have reformed and rationalized the delivery of punishment. The buildings that administer contemporary criminal justice are ‘neither forbidding nor overly welcoming [but are] simply there, like everything else in the neighbourhood’ (Davis, 1990: 168). Drawing on two ESRC-funded research studies, this paper will explore what our newest prisons communicate about current attitudes to offenders, and what England and Wales might learn about the link between prison design and offender rehabilitation from its near neighbours.


Streets of Crime: Criminal Life Courses, Carceral Geographies and Immersive Environments
Dr Zoe Alker (Liverpool University)

Streets of Crime seeks to change how historians understand the world of working-class London in the 1840s- and the criminal justice system that evolved to police and punish its criminals. By creating an integrated and multidimensional model of the neighbourhood of Whitechapel, Newgate and Millbank Prisons, and the courtrooms at the Old Bailey, the project refocuses historical attention onto the spatial experience of the individual men and women, whose lives were transformed by a newly bureaucratic British state; and illustrates how the new tools of digital analysis can be applied to existing data to generate new conclusions.




The Democratic Courthouse
Professor Linda Mulcahy (University of Oxford)

This presentation will examine the relationship between architectural design, due process and dignity. More particularly it considers what courthouses are intended to symbolise, the effect they are intended to have on the many publics that use them and the sorts of behaviour they seek to facilitate. Drawing on a detailed analysis of public and private government archives funded by the Leverhulme Trust, this paper will chart how civil servants, judges, lawyers, architects, engineers and security experts have talked about English and Welsh courthouses in the corridors of Whitehall over the last 50 years.  It pays particularly close attention to the centralized design guides they produced which prescribed how all courts across the country were to be designed. The paper examines the apparent paradox that despite the democratic ideals espoused by the modern state, the laity has become increasingly spatially marginalised in courthouses and legal proceedings in the last fifty years.  It argues that this has been rendered possible by the absence of a jurisprudence of design in legal and government circles.   


‘He only stole a loaf of bread!’: Popular Narratives of Historical British Courtrooms
Rhiannon Pickin (Leeds Beckett University)

Television programmes and films often present British courtr​oom history through a narrative of progressivism, in which the historic legal system is interpreted as having been cruel and unjust in comparison to its modern counterpart. Museums also present the history in this way to ensure visitor accessibility, which is problematic as the narrative often lacks nuance due to the distortion, or omission, of certain historical facts. This paper examines how interpretations of courtroom design and symbolism are affected by popular understandings of legal history, with a particular focus on the use of space within courtroom museums.


Police Stations


Visible policing: The symbolic power of police stations
Andrew Millie (Edge Hill University)

Whilst there has been some academic interest in the architecture of prisons and the design of courtrooms, there has been far less research on the architecture of the police estate. This is surprising given the long-standing emphasis on the symbolic and communicative properties of police activity more broadly. This paper focuses on the visual culture of contemporary policing, considers the semiotics of police buildings and asks what it is we want our police stations to be for. The answer to this has important influence on whether we want our police buildings to be intimidating fortresses or truly public buildings. Changing policing priorities and demands that have resulted in the closure of some historic stations and the development of out-of-town or shared premises. Austerity has meant that some Police Services have opted to close police stations to save money. Whilst many stations are badly designed and in the wrong locations, there is the possibility that - in some cases at least - Police Services have been guilty of ‘selling the family silver’.


Police Stations and the visibility of state authority in Portugal, c.1870-1940
Dr Gonçalo Goncalves (University of Rio)

The distribution of police stations in urban spaces and their own development as ‘locales’ with specific characteristics constitute central aspects in the modern development of the police and  policing practices. The spatial rationalities involved in the territorialization of the police, the sociocultural and technical dynamics of policing, and the emergence of places through which communities could visualize and interact with the State were major components of this process. Using police daily orders, policemen memoirs, photographs and police stations blueprints, this paper seeks to examine the concept and geography of police stations in Lisbon stressing its continuing political significance in a period that witnessed the end of the monarchy, the rise and fall of the First Republic and the ascension and consolidation of the authoritarian New State.

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If you have any queries please e-mail Sarah Batt: FASS-Collaborations <>

Do you have questions about Prisons, Courts & Police Stations in Historical Perspective? Contact Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice

When & Where

The Open University
Library Seminar Rooms 1 & 2, 2nd Floor
Walton Hall
MK7 6AA Kents Hill
United Kingdom

Friday, 17 May 2019 from 10:30 to 16:30 (BST)

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Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice

The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences embodies the core values of The Open University, enabling, empowering and transforming individuals, societies, cultures and ourselves through our teaching, research and engagement in dialogues across the world. The Faculty is the largest and most diverse at The Open University, with some 50,000 students studying our courses with excellent completion rates and consistently outstanding student satisfaction ratings. Noted for the strength of our interdisciplinary...

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