Joseph Owen – Putting a face to a name…

Some time ago I posted a short article about my great-great-grandfather, Joseph Owen, who was born in the early 1850s and lived and worked on narrow boats plying their trade on the Grand Union Canal. In his twenties he fell foul of the law and was sentenced to five years hard labour for assault in 1877.

Now, from recently digitised images of inmates of Pentonville Prison, I can put a face to the name and here is Joseph, (thanks to my cousin Jenny who found the pic):

According to his prison discharge record he was just 5 feet and a quarter inch tall, very short even for the time. But then again, of the ten people on the same page as Joseph’s discharge record just one is taller than 5 feet 4 inches. Generations of malnourishment throughout the early industrial revolution is known to have had a detrimental effect on the physique and average life-span of working class people so I guess his height shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

In the picture you’ll notice his hands are raised, holding the front of his prison uniform. This was a standard pose, adopted so that any tattoos on the backs of hands could be recorded.


When this photograph was made, Joseph was just two months into his sentence but when he was released, it was into the supervision of the RSADP, according to his discharge record. The RSADP was the Royal Society for the Assistance of Discharged Prisoners and was a charitable organisation set up to help reduce recidivism. They would assist ex-cons to find work and accommodation and help them manage what little money they left prison with. It would seem that Joseph was one of their successes as there is no record of him re-offending and he went on to become master of his own narrow boat on the Grand Union Canal.

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