1st Edition

‘Star Men’ in English Convict Prisons, 1879-1948

By Ben Bethell Copyright 2023
    240 Pages 4 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    240 Pages 4 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    This book tells the story of the star class, a segregated division for first offenders in English convict prisons; known informally as ‘star men’, convicts assigned to the division were identified by a red star sewn to their uniforms. ‘Star Men’ in English Convict Prisons, 1879–1948 investigates the origins of the star class in the years leading up to its establishment in 1879, and charts its subsequent development during the late-Victorian, Edwardian, and interwar decades.

    To what extent did the star class serve to shield ‘gentleman convicts’ from their social inferiors and allow them a measure of privilege? What was the precise nature of the ‘contamination’ by which they and other ‘accidental criminals’ were believed to be threatened? And why, for the first twenty years of its existence, were first offenders convicted of ‘unnatural crimes’ barred from the division? To explore these questions, the book considers the making and implementation of penal policy by senior civil servants and prison administrators, and the daily life and work of prisoners at policy’s receiving end. It re-examines evolving notions of criminality, the competing aims of reformation and deterrence, and the role and changing nature of prison labour. Along the way, readers will encounter an array of star men, including arsonists, abortionists, sex offenders and reprieved murderers, disgraced bankers, light-fingered postmen, bent solicitors, and perjuring policemen.

    Taking a fresh look at English prison history through converging lenses of class, sexuality, and labour, ‘Star Men’ in English Convict Prisons, 1879-1948 will be of great interest to penal historians and historical criminologists, and to scholars working on related aspects of modern British history.


    1 Contamination in English convict prisons before 1879

    2 ‘Gentleman convicts’ and ‘accidental criminals’

    3 The convict star class: selection and formation, 1879-c.1885

    4 The convict star class: accommodation and labour, 1879-1909

    5 Maidstone convict prison, 1909-c.1930

    6 Star men, c.1920-1948



    Ben Bethell studied at Birkbeck, University of London, receiving a PhD in history in 2020. He teaches at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. ‘Star Men’ in English Convict Prisons, 1879-1948 is his first book.

    "In tracking down the biographies, crimes and fate of his subjects – the ‘Star Men’ - Bethell shows exemplary scholarship, energy and ingenuity. He has drawn back the covers and this book presents us with a fascinating conspectus of an important aspect of English social and penal history, hitherto largely obscured".

    - Professor Seán McConville, Queen Mary University of London, UK

    "Bethell’s work makes a major contribution to prison history. It is the first text to focus wholly on the creation and lifespan of the star class, introduced to segregate first offenders from contamination by those inured to crime. The star class provides a lens through which this well-written and well-researched book reveals the contingent and diverse nature of convict incarceration and enables Bethell to challenge some established historiography about penal policy. Bureaucratic investigations that underpinned the composition of the star class reveal a great deal about the influence of class-based thinking."

    - Professor Alyson Brown, Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, UK

    "This fascinating research explores the complexities of the 'star class', a system of prison classification used in the convict system, for first-time offenders. Bethell skilfully resurrects the challenges that this class presented, not only to the administrators, but also to the prison regime, prison cultures and the experiences of long-term inmates in the late 19th and twentieth century. More broadly, this engaging account shows the struggles authorities had with 'contamination' inside prisons in the past, but also resonates with concerns in contemporary prison systems."

    - Professor Helen L. Johnston, University of Hull, UK