Until the end of the Peninsula Campaign, there were three main punishments in the British Army: death by hanging, death by firing squad and the lash using a cat o’ nine tails. Regarding the latter, a man could receive up to 2,000 lashes as punishment, although this number of lashes did drop after Waterloo. During this time more soldiers were sent to prison, but to civilian gaols as there were no dedicated military prisons.
In the late 1840s it was decided to build military prisons and by 1850 there were nine in use, all of which were still focused on punishment. It wasn’t until the founding of the Military Prison Staff Corps (later Military Provost Staff Corps or MPSC) in 1901 that imprisonment became about rehabilitation and retraining. Any sentence under 28 days was kept in the unit guardroom, and any over would be sent to a Military Corrective Establishment.
The First World War & inter-war years
During the First World War the need to expand the MPSC and their establishments came with the expansion of the Army, especially with the introduction of conscription. The first military prisons in France were ships, and later Field Punishment Centres were built behind the lines. Prisoners were made to do hard labour in the form of loading and unloading of supplies, with none of the extras provided at the front such as tea, jam and chocolate.
In 1915 the Suspension of Sentence Act returned men to the front who had committed minor offences. However, if they committed another offence they would be imprisoned at the end of hostilities. At the end of the war, many prisons and detention barracks closed as they were no longer needed.
The large cuts made to the Army in the 1920s, called Geddes Axe, reduced the numbers of the Corps and the prisons. By 1939 Aldershot was the only one left in the UK, while abroad there were detention barracks in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tientsin, Gibraltar, Cairo, Jamaica, Malta and Singapore, and small establishments in Khartoum, Kandy and Mauritius.
The Second World War
The Second World War had the same problem as the First. The massive influx of soldiers created a massive need to expand military detention centres, leading to the use of mills in the North of England as well as the establishment of Field Punishment Centres and Detention Barracks behind the lines. The MPSC also ran POW camps in Britain; they took on POWs in Europe and South East Asia, and occasionally used POW camps used by the Germans and Japanese to house the new internees.
Towards the end of the war there were riots in prisons in the UK and Austria; Aldershot sustained the worst damage and was never repaired.
Many establishments closed after the war, and by the 1960s only Colchester Military Corrective Training Centre and Hong Kong were open. By the end of that decade only Colchester MCTC was still open.
The MPSC became part of the AGC Provost branch in 1992, with the tri-service Military Corrective Training Centre still located in Colchester. The AGC(MPS) were renamed in 2015 and designated as The Military Provost Staff Regiment.
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