Crofton, Sir Walter Frederick (1815–97), penal reformer, was born 27 February 1815 at Courtrai, in western Flanders, the second son of Walter Crofton (1784–1815), captain in the 54th foot, and his wife, Harriet (née Waukhope). His father was killed at the battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Crofton's Irish lineage came from forebears who had settled in Co. Roscommon. Following the death of her husband, Mrs Crofton and her two sons were cared for by Walter Jones, a cousin of Walter Crofton, at Maidstone, Kent. At an early age Crofton decided on a military career and he entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, becoming a second lieutenant in the royal artillery on 21 June 1833. He was promoted to the rank of captain on 17 January 1845, before resigning on half pay (1 February 1845) to take up residence in Wiltshire, where he served as a magistrate and began to take an interest in the penal system and prison reform. Meanwhile, in November 1839, he had married Anna Maria Shipley, the only daughter of the Rev. C. Shipley of Twyford House, Hampshire, with whom he had two sons and two daughters. Towards the end of his life, on 1 July 1881, he was placed on retired army pay.
Crofton's growing interest in prison affairs led to his appointment in 1853 as a member of a commission to inquire into the state of Irish prisons, and in the following year he was made chairman of the new Irish convicts' prisons board (November 1854). While in this office he developed a progressive approach that gave Irish prisons a distinctive system of reform, based on that introduced by Captain Alexander Maconochie in Van Diemen's Land in the 1840s. Crofton encouraged the use of an ‘intermediate stage’ in the penal system, which placed prisoners in an ‘open’ prison, where they could associate and work to prove that they were reformed and fit to be released on licence. Two prisons were opened to meet this purpose, the first in Lusk, Co. Dublin, which was established for agricultural labourers, and the second in Smithfield, Dublin, set up for industrial workers. The prince consort and his two sons were taken over Smithfield while on a visit to Dublin in 1861. These prisons had some success, but they lasted for only a few decades and both were closed by the mid-1880s. The system, however, had a wider significance; Crofton's ideas stimulated much discussion among the penal reformers of Britain and Europe and were debated at the Social Science Association's congress in London (1862). While certain aspects of the ‘Irish system’ were introduced by legislation in Britain, it was never fully implemented. It made more of an impact in Germany, where Crofton influenced the creation of the open prison system.
In recognition of his service to prisons, after his retirement in 1862 Crofton was knighted (30 May), having already been made CB in 1857; he also received a pension worth more than £333 per annum. He continued to take an interest in Irish prison affairs after he moved back to England, and was made special commissioner in Ireland for prisons, reformatories, and industrial schools (1868–9); in this capacity he inaugurated the industrial schools system (1869). He was appointed to the Irish privy council in 1869 and later served as chairman of the prisons board in Ireland (1877–8). Crofton also held office in prisons in England and was appointed commissioner of county and borough gaols there from 1865 to 1868. In his capacity as a magistrate and resident in Wiltshire he established an industrial school for the children of criminals and maintained a refuge for female convicts. He died at home in Oxford on 23 June 1897.
As his reputation as one of the leading authorities on prisons and penal reform grew, Crofton published a number of pamphlets relating to these issues. They include: A few remarks on the convict system (1857); The immunity of ‘habitual criminals’: with a proposition for reducing their number (1861); A brief description of the Irish convict system (1862); Convict systems and transportation: a lecture (1863); A few observations on a pamphlet recently published by J. Bart on the Irish convict system (1863).