Pantheons: Sculpture at St Paul's Cathedral (c.1796-1916)

50 Monuments in 50 Voices – John Howard (1726–1790) – Fergus McNeill

‘Dear John’: Chair of the Howard League, Prof. Fergus McNeill’s Response to the Monument to John Howard (1726–1790), by John Bacon the Elder, 1795

Fergus McNeill
Sculpted relief panel showing a prisoner being helped by cvarius people, including someine with a tray of bread and wine on their head, while a jailer holding a large key looks on, top left corner.
Monument to John Howard (1726–1790), by John Bacon the Elder, 1795 (detail)
'Dear John' by Fergus McNeill: Response to the Monument to John Howard (50 Monuments in 50 Voices)

‘Dear John’ by Fergus McNeill


A series of three letters written to prison reformer John Howard (1727–1790) from the present, in Autumn 2022 – St Andrew’s Day, referred to in the third letter, is 30 November. The time reference give for each letter refers to its starting point in the video above.


[Letter 1]

Dear John,

This is a little embarrassing.

We’ve never met – how could we? – you’ve been gone a long, long time. 232 years to be precise. Still, it has fallen to me to let you know that you are remembered and revered.

You had only one son, and I understand that that relationship was, well, a little bit complicated. I suppose there’s nothing unusual in that – you were away a lot of the time, after all, and he was raised as a child in care, though not the care of the state of course. You were a very wealthy man, after all.

In any case, you might be surprised to know that there are thousands of us that – though we are not in your blood line – nonetheless bear your name – tens of thousands in fact – all over the world, in places farther away than even you travelled.

John, I think these might even be love letters of a sort, from us to you, from now to then. But let’s not get too misty-eyed about it; all we have to admire are facsimiles of you; the version of you left behind in your writings; the versions the historians composed; and also this strange and fascinating statue. John Howard in marble. John Howard at St Paul’s cathedral no less! I wonder what you’d make of that.

I’m looking right at you now and – I confess – I’m suppressing a giggle. I can’t believe they dressed you in a robe and sandals. You were no Aristotle, no Socrates, neither philosopher nor scientist. Most of all, I think, you were a curious traveller – curious in both senses of the word. You’d have needed warmer clothes and stout shoes for journeying into the dark places you visited. Is that why I sense see some reluctance in your pose on the plinth; you seem, oddly, a little on the back foot somehow?

At the same time, there’s something else in your face – in the eyes in particular. The curiosity is there for sure, but also kindness. Perhaps even hope, more of which later.

Until then, please accept this assurance of my sincere admiration and respect.

P.S. I’m half-Howard myself, on my mother’s side. She too is dead but yet loved.

[Letter 2 – 2:44]

Dear John,

Remember what I said about not being too misty-eyed? Well, it’s not that I lied in my last letter; it’s just that I left some things out.

My sense is that you were not a fan of half-truths and omissions. You went to the dark places to see with your own eyes what you would find – to bring it into the light.  You were not content to leave prisons and prisoners unseen and unconsidered. Your curiosity catalogued the deprivations, the indignities, the disease and the suffering that you found, in meticulous if idiosyncratic detail. The bread ration. The space. The light. The quality of air. You cared enough to notice, to count, and to record it all. The scroll in your left hand reminds me of that.

So, let me clear the air between us, as it were. It is true, as I said in my last letter, that you have tens of thousands of followers all over the world, all of them striving for an end to those dark places, or at least for their lightening. But – and now I’m really embarrassed — I have to confess; we haven’t been entirely successful.

This will come as a nasty shock, I’m sure, but there’s no way to sugarcoat it. There are almost 100,000 people in prisons in our Kingdom United only, it seems, in anger, fear and disgust. Across Europe, more than one in every thousand citizens is in prison now; that’s more than one and a half million people. 2 million in the now independent United States of America. There are so many prisons John; not even someone with your energy and commitment could visit them all.  In these islands alone, there are 141 prisons, and there are plans to build more.

You’re probably hoping that, in the last 232 years, we’ve at least made these places more humane, more sanitary, more productive. Well, yes and no. The prison inspectors and visitors and researchers that follow in your footsteps might concur that physical conditions have improved somewhat, but our prisons are overcrowded, understaffed, expensive and ineffective. Much too often, they debilitate and disable the people inside them — both prisoners and staff.

Perhaps you’re thinking that we must face enormous crime problems that require this repression. No, that’s not the reason why prisons have persisted and grown. Crime rates have been mostly stable or falling for decades now.

You’ll probably ask how is it possible that we haven’t managed to come up with better ways to respond to crime in the near quarter of a millennium since your passing. The truth is that we do keep inventing clever-sounding so-called alternatives. Unfortunately, when we invest in these ideas and see them grow, they become supplementary punishment not substitutes for it. That’s why, as well as the 100,000 in prison, we now have well over a quarter of a million people under penal supervision in the community in the United Kingdom.

There are other reasons, complex reasons, for the mess we’re in, but to give you a simple analogy that I think you would relate to, given your health problems: We’ve cultivated the unhealthiest of appetites; we feast on the suffering of others because we’re taught to be afraid of them, and because we’ve been sold the lie that they are not us, and we are not them.

I can’t imagine how disappointing this must be for you to hear. I’m so sorry John. I’ll write again soon, perhaps with better news.

Until then, I remain your affectionate admirer.

P.S. Speaking of healthy and unhealthy diets, it might amuse you to know that lots of people nowadays, like you, have foresworn eating meat, and some avoid dairy products too. Vegans we call them. I think you might approve of that development at least.

[Letter 3 – 6:58]

Dear John,

It’s St Andrew’s Day in Scotland. Did I say I was writing from Glasgow? Perhaps the accent gave me away.

I promised you better news, but on my radio this morning – oh, wait a minute, I should explain – a radio is a device that allows you to hear voices in your home that are transmitted, sometimes live and sometimes recorded, from people some distance away. You can even transmit radios signals across oceans and continents – all around the world. It’s amazing really how technology has changed our lives; and how much has stayed the same.

Anyway, on my radio this morning, they were talking about the news in Scotland today that the numbers of people dying in Scottish prisons have risen in the last three years. Some die by suicide, or through the misuse of the illegal substances they use to ease the pains of their confinement. Some die because of difficulties accessing proper healthcare. The last few years have been especially grim – a global pandemic led to people in prisons being locked up in their cells with little to do, often for 23 hours a day. We’re only beginning to count the costs of that additional suffering. No-one seems to have noticed the injustice of making their punishment so much more severe.

Speaking of severe punishment, I will bring you some better news. We might still be shortening and damaging lives with imprisonment, but we have at least abolished the death penalty. That happened in 1965, 99 years after the penal reform Association that still bears your name was formed. I hope you approve.

Something else in the news reminded me of you. You’ll recall the city of Kherson – of course you will. Did you know that St Andrew also visited there? It wasn’t his last stop, like it was for you.  Kherson was where merely visiting prisons finally proved fatal in your case. It was typhus that you contracted, I’m told. I’m sorry about that too.

Sadly, Kherson is back in the news because men of violence are bombing it. They say that the violence is legitimate; they are targeting the resources that give power and succour to their enemies. But most of us don’t believe they are under any threat at all. What we do believe is that they don’t care that the bombs and the blackouts endanger people who bear no arms and have done no wrong. Collateral damage, they call it.

I suppose you were yourself that kind of unintended casualty; your death was a collateral consequence of the imprisonment of others. The violence of punishment still produces many of those casualties John; the children deprived of parents, the parents deprived of children, the lovers deprived of one another, the communities deprived of the energy and potential of their own people. Even the released prisoners deprived of a future by the stain that punishment leaves. 

In the marble version of you at St Paul’s, you are holding a key in your right hand, and the chains lie discarded at your feet.  In my first letter, I joked about the Greek robe they dressed you in and said you were neither a philosopher nor a scientist. Well, now I wonder if the joke is on me. The thing is, they do dress me up in robes from time to time at the university here, and they’ve given me a special chair and told me I can profess. You see I am a philosopher and a scientist of sorts – a ‘criminologist’ is what they call me.

But I look at your key, and I look at the discarded chains, and – for all that I’ve learned about punishment — I hesitate and hover between despair and hope about us ever escaping our chains.  I also wonder how, even with those kind eyes, you would judge me; how you would judge us. Perhaps you’d feel the same revulsion that you did when you first stepped into Bedford prison. How can we allow so much ugliness to persist?

If it was revulsion that energised your journeys, perhaps I can at least hope that – if the Howard League for Penal Reform and all of its collaborators in the wider movement – can help to open people’s eyes to the cruelty and injustice that is done in their name, then maybe we can revolt together, and build not just a different kind of penal system, but a better society.

Next time I’m in London, I promise I’ll come and see you.

Thank you for what you did.


Fergus McNeill
Chair of the Howard of League for Penal Reform
Professor of Criminology and Social Work at the University of Glasgow

free-standing marble figure wearing a toga-like garment,holding a scroll in one hand and a keyn in the other, standing on a plinth with a prison scene sculpted in relief
Monument to John Howard (1726–1790), by John Bacon the Elder, 1795

About Fergus McNeill

Fergus McNeill is Professor of Criminology and Social Work at the University of Glasgow, where he works in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research and in Sociology.

Prior to becoming an academic in 1998, Fergus worked for a decade in residential drug rehabilitation and as a criminal justice social worker. His many research projects and publications have examined institutions, cultures and practices of punishment and rehabilitation and their alternatives. He is currently Chair of the Trustees of the Howard League for Penal Reform. Established in 1866 and named after John Howard, the Howard League is the oldest penal reform charity in the UK.

Fergus is also a self-described ‘late-blooming’ singer-songwriter: read blog posts and explore his music via his website.

Visit Fergus’s academic profile and find him on Facebook, Instagram, Mastadon and Twitter.

About the Monument

The monument to prison reformer John Howard (1726–1790) was the first monument on the cathedral floor of Wren’s new St Paul’s Cathedral. It was sculpted by John Bacon the Elder (1740–1799), the leading sculptor of his day and erected in 1795, five years after Howard’s death in Kherson (Ukraine), where he had contracted typhus whilst visiting a local prison.

Bacon represented Howard wearing simple Roman dress to emphasise his virtue and connecting him with the scene sculpted in relief on the pedestal below: thereby also making this classicised scene relevant to contemporary viewers, with its representation of people giving practical and emotional support to prisoners. The key Howard holds in his right hand, a positive symbol there, is counterbalanced by the key in the jailer’s hand immediately below, as the jailer looks on, waiting to lock the prison door again. In his left hand, Howard carries a scroll of his ‘Plan for the Improvement of Prisons and Hospitals’, representing his published works, which had far-reaching influence not only in Britain but across the world.

The inscription, on the right-hand face of the pedestal, reads:

JOHN HOWARD Sept IId. MDCCXXVI. / The early part of his life he spent in retirement, / residing principally upon his paternal estate, / at Cardington in Bedfordshire; / for which county he served the office of Sheriff / in the year MDCCLXXIII. / He expired at Cherson [sic] in Russian Tartary, on the XXth. Of Jan. MDCCXC, / a victim of the perilous and benevolent attempt / to ascertain the cause of, and find efficacious remedy / for the plague. / He trod an open but unfrequented path to immortality, / in the ardent and intermitted exercise of Christian charity: / may this tribute to his fame / excite an emulation of his truly glorious achievements.