Apr 092012

One of the handbills collected by Richard Hall was for a ‘Panopticon‘ (literally, ‘seeing everywhere’). It was made in the earlier part of the century by Christopher Pinchbeck, a well-known London jeweller and clock-maker. As explained in yesterday’s post it was Pinchbeck who discovered an alloy which was used in the trade as a substitute for gold (three parts zinc, four parts copper). As such his name has become synonymous with something cheap and worthless, a fake, but back in the 1700’s it was seen as a useful way of making cheaper ‘costume jewellery’ – more appropriate for taking on journeys. He also dabbled in musical automata and exhibited these at his premises at Fleet Street near the Leg Tavern. After he died in 1732, and after an interval of perhaps twenty years, his younger son Edward used the Panopticon as a travelling show, charging visitors a shilling to see the curiosity. Here is the handbill :

The panopticon was three sided: one showed a country fair, with musicians and blacksmiths moving in time; the second showed  a ‘beautiful landskip‘ (i.e. landscape) with a flowing river and huntsmen; and the third was a ship-yard with labourers working on ships to a musical accompaniment. The actual description is rather more elaborate:

First Side

“In the first scene is the clock, which besides telling the time shows the high tide times in 3o different sea ports, with the Moon’s age, its increase and decrease, full and change, and underneath which is a representation of a Country Fair with a vast variety of Motions too tedious to mention…a Concert of Musick in a tent, of which all the figures have their true actions agreeable to the several airs with which the ear is entertained….

Second side

A great variety of coaches, carts, chaises and horsemen ascending and descending hills and altering their positions, a water mil with the water running from it, swans fighting and feathering themselves, dog and duck hunting ,with several other whimsical motions…the upper picture is a smith’s shop with men grinding their tools, blowing their bellows, planishing at the anvil, working at the forge etc.

Third side

In the last scene the lower picture represents a ship-carpenters yard with a distant view of the sea. In the yard are workmen corking, carving, sawing in the pit, carrying planks from a pile to the ship….

Note: it plays several pieces of music on various instruments, composed by the best Masters; as Handel, Albononi etc, and imitates an Aviary of birds”.

This panopticon would have been just the sort  of thing Richard Hall adored – very similar to the be-jewelled automata he subsequently visited, over and over again, at James Cox’s museum in Spring Gardens in the 1770s and 1780s.

But this was not the only panopticon being discussed in the eighteenth century – the name was given to a very different item for ‘seeing everywhere’.

And what was this other Panopticon? Well, that was the name given by the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham to his concept of a prison where warders could keep prisoners in their sight at all times, without the prisoners knowing that they were being observed. There was a central viewing room, with all the cells constructed around it in a circle. With this ability to ‘spy unseen’ Bentham  described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example”. He reckoned the design would be equally beneficial in schools, asylums and poor-houses. For the latter years of the Eighteenth Century he peddled his ideas for this prison, at one point being awarded £2000 by William Pitt to refine his plans. Land was acquired for a National Penitentiary at Millbank but a change of Prime Minister meant that the plans were shelved, re-opened, and then shelved again. Bentham was devastated, having invested years of his time and a considerable amount of his own money upon the scheme. He submitted a claim for £700,000 compensation for his troubles! In the end he settled for compensation of £23,000. It left Bentham with a burning sense of the ‘sinister injustice’  over what he was convinced was a deliberate ploy by the ‘powers that be’ to thwart him and to undermine what was in the public interest. This influenced many of his ideas for social reform.

A National Penitentiary was eventually built at Millbank, but not following Bentham’s design. His ideas have however influenced many aspects of prison design, particularly in Spain, Poland and the United States. Arguably some of the features are to be found at Pentonville Prison in North London. The only true ‘Panopticon‘ is the  Presidio Modelo in Cuba, constructed in 2005 on a small island off the coast, but apparently abandoned shortly afterwards.


I cannot help thinking that Mr Pinchbeck‘s Panopticon was a lot more pleasing on the eye – and rather more fun!

  One Response to “The 18th Century Panopticon – a musical automaton to attract tourists, or a model prison?”


    I have to agree with you about which Panopticon was more fun! The idea of being able to see everyone and everything in prisons, workhouses, oh sorry, they call them old folk’s homes now, schools and asylums is a bit of a mixed blessing – easier to control but then what happened to privacy… with the current Government desires to snoop on private emails having a big brother building for controlling the cattle, I mean the subjects, is a little bit of a sore point!

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