Alexander Paterson

We are delighted to publish Harry Potter’s third Boydell book and for it to be the first biography of one of the greatest penal reformers of the twentieth century is a source of real pride. A criminal defence barrister, he has now authored six books, presented an award-winning series, The Strange Case of the Law, for the BBC and given numerous lectures and talks. How he finds the time to write such engaging and informative books we do not know, but we are very glad that he does. Here he tells us how his latest book came about.

When I was researching for my last book, Shades of the Prison House: a History of Incarceration in the British Isles, I became fascinated by the most influential prison reformer of the twentieth century, Alexander Paterson. I found that other than a short entry in the ODNB and Who Was Who, and mentions of him in the reminiscences of contemporaries or in a few academic penal studies, there was little written about his life, and up until now no biography. For an individual so prominent in his own lifetime, he has faded from the public arena, known by none but criminologists and penologists. I hoped to rectify this and bring to greater public notice a man lauded in his own day as being of a similar stature to John Howard and Elizabeth Fry. But could it be done?

                There were, of course, Prison Commission and Home Office records held in the National Archives, but was there enough material for a comprehensive account of his life, and would that life prior to his prison work be of wide interest? I decided to find out. I knew that he had been born in Bowdon, Cheshire, 1884, had gone up to University College, Oxford where his friends included Clem Attlee, the future Prime Minister, and William Temple, the future Archbishop of Canterbury. I knew that he had forsaken political ambitions to live and work among the poor of Bermondsey, and had written an enormously influential account of life there called Across the Bridges. I knew that during the Great War he had served with distinction in the Bermondsey Battalion of the London Regiment (47th Division), joining up as a private and leaving as a decorated officer, and had been involved in Talbot House and Toc H. I knew that he had served as the most influential of all Prison Commissioners from 1922 to shortly before his death in 1947. And I knew that his hobbies were reading, digging and singing.

                Where to start? Where better than at the beginning. Bowdon. I visited that pleasant haven on several occasions, going to his house (and noticing that a couple of doors away had lived Hans Richter). I visited the Dunham Road Unitarian Church where Aled Jones showed me the plaque to Alec’s father and elder brother, and gave me much background information on Unitarian beliefs and practices at the turn of the nineteenth century. Nearby in another church at Hales Barns I discovered the Paterson family grave where Alec’s ashes had been interred.

                On to Oxford where Dr Darwall-Smith found all he could in the University College archives, including photographs of Alec in the hockey team and later as an about-to-be honorary fellow. I also consulted the Attlee archives in the Bodleian Library since I knew that Attlee was a lifelong friend of Paterson and held him in high esteem

                Bermondsey next. I walked the streets of Dockhead where Alec had lived, visited the site of the Oxford Medical Mission (later the Oxford and Bermondsey Club) where he had worked with John Stansfeld, ‘the Doctor’, and attended St Mary Magdalen, the parish church where he had worshipped. Further away I found Paterson Park, constructed out of a bomb-site as a memorial, and opened in 1953 by Attlee.

                Later in my researches I would visit Talbot House, the ‘Everyman’s Club’, established by Alec’s old friend Tubby Clayton in Flanders, which he had frequented, and Malta where in 1944 he was sent to report on prison conditions on the island which had just survived massive aerial bombardment.

                All the while I was amassing such books written by his friends, colleagues and others, as might contain snippets – or more – about him. I think I can safely say that I have read everything anyone has published about him, and everything that he ever published, and much that he did not. What I have not found is any of his correspondence before 1914 or after 1918, apart from a few short letters to his daughter. Perhaps the publication of this biography will lead to the discovery of much more. Some treasures have already been unearthed. From a retired governor in the Prison Service, Michael Selby, I received the journal of the first governor of Lowdham Grange Borstal, Alec’s brainchild and pride and joy.

                The British Library and the National Archives were invaluable repositories. Prison Commission, Home Office, and Colonial Office records contain a lot about his activities as a world-renowned penologist who was frequently dispatched to provide expert guidance to countries throughout the British Empire and beyond.

                Throughout, I was utilising the resources of the internet to find government and other websites that might assist. Census returns, electoral rolls, birth, marriage and death certificates, and above all wills and probate. Serendipity, lateral thinking, and one source leading to another all played their part.

                But could I put flesh on the bones? Could I find any living descendants? I knew that he had married and had a daughter, Margaret. She was only 19 when her father died and I did not know if she had had children herself, or died childless. Through painstaking research I eventually discovered that she had married a man with the name of Stedham, and fortunately not Smith or Jones. I obtained his will, and in it he appointed as his executrix his daughter, Jennifer Rendell. There was one by that name at Oxford University. I contacted her and she confirmed that she was indeed Alec’s granddaughter and that she had two brothers, Tony and David. When I met them they provided me with the family archive, which included many newspaper cuttings, photographs, and above all a large bound volume of the diaries and the letters he wrote to his family during the Great War and the sequel to Across the Bridges, called Over the Walls, which he had left unfinished at his death. The grandchildren also put in me in touch with Katharine Draper, their aunt and Alec’s niece, the last person alive to have known him personally. Over several visits to this sprightly nonagenarian I found out things that only someone who knew him could relate. Did he smoke? Like a chimney. Did he drink? Like a fish. She also provided me with the genealogy of the Paterson family dating back to the eighteenth century, and allowed me to use a picture of the Paterson children painted by their aunt, the celebrated water-colourist, Mary Allingham.

                I had found or been given a lot of valuable material, covering most of his life. Five discoveries proved to be particularly interesting and intriguing, necessitating quite a lot of further research. Firstly, he had forsaken a glittering political career contemporaries at Oxford were sure he would have (and that Attlee would not), to dedicate himself to the service of the less-privileged. Secondly, he had been given the initial task of researching his Division’s role in the great war and had become a leading contributor to the subsequent divisional history. Thirdly, his strictures had persuaded the French government to close the infamous ‘Devil’s Island’ penal colony. Fourthly, he had taken the lead in thwarting a Nazi attempt to completely subvert the Penal and Penitentiary Congress held in Berlin in 1935. Lastly, that he had been responsible for getting many ‘enemy aliens’ – mainly Jews – released from internment on the Isle of Man or in Canada. All his many reports on prisons are fresh and lively, more like essays than formal civil service documents, but the one on Canadian internees stands out in its force, compassion and humanity.

                In short, I had easily enough stuff to give a detailed account of his life and work, and almost too much to make it digestible. I also recognised that its interest went well beyond that of his time as a Prison Commissioner important as that was, and should intrigue more than just those interested in penal matters. It encompassed the liberal moral imperatives of late Victorian Britain, Oxford at the turn of the century, the Settlement Movement in Edwardian times, and of course the Great War, and its products, Talbot House and Toc H.

                Apart from writing his biography, I have endeavoured to propagate his name and fame as far and wide as I can. I have given talks about him to a variety of different groups, including a podcast for the Western Front Association. I am currently editing and annotating his war diary and letters with a view to publication, and I have been asked to contribute a chapter on him for a forthcoming book on 47th Division. Having resurrected the man, I intend to keep him alive.


Harry Potter is a criminal barrister and the author of Law, Liberty and the Constitution: A Short History of the Common Law (2015) and Shades of the Prison House: A History of Incarceration in the British Isles (2019).

Alexander Paterson: Prison Reformer
By Harry Potter
9781783276677, Hardcover, Blog offer price: £29.25/$52

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