Updated: Jul 26, 2021
Iceland experienced severe famine from 1751-1758 when approximately 6,000 people died and the population dropped to about 43,000. Extreme cold with pack ice around the fishing grounds started in 1750. The mighty volcano, Katla, erupted in 1755. This same year, the pack ice never melted and the northeast coast stayed frozen the entire year. This pack ice continued to freeze down the coast the following year.
During this time, people were starving and there became an increase in the amount of crimes - especially theft. The people arrested for this were sent to Copenhagen and sentenced to forced labor. Many of them died in Denmark. Iceland did not have a prison system. However, the convicts were detained in Iceland until a ship was available for transport, which caused great hardship.
Because of the increase in crime and the lack of facilities, the Icelandic authorities asked for permission from the Danish government to simply hang the offenders to save time and expense. King Frederick V ruled as King of Denmark and Norway from 1746 to his death in 1766. He denied the request and continued forcing the prisoners to do labor in Denmark.
20 Mar 1759, a new prison building was approved and work began by the convicts themselves in 1761. The Stjórnarráðshús (Cabinet House / Government House) was opened in 1764 as Iceland's very first prison.
In 1813, all the prisoners were released because of a food shortage. When prisoners were captured, they were punished with flogging. In 1820, the building was the official headquarters of the Governor and prison facilities remained unavailable. Imprisonment was made the law for criminals in 1869. A new prison was completed in 1873. The next year, on 02 Aug 1874, the King of Denmark brought a special constitution. READ MORE about the reason we celebrate Íslendingadagurinn and the Deuce of August celebrations on the 2nd of August. In that constitution was a provision stating an arrested person must be brought before a judge as soon as possible and the judge must sentence them within three days.
Over the years, the building was used as the home and workplace of the Iceland Governor. In 1918, Iceland was declared a sovereign state on these front steps. This building remains as the Government House and the office for the Prime Minister and his staff.
I was able to go inside the building and have a tour by Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð and Political Advisor Jóhannes Þór. They were both so gracious and kind. The history of the building is fascinating. To imagine everything that has transpired behind these walls ....... amazing!
Jóhannes Þór, Sunna, Sigmundur Davíð
Skúli Magnússon was the government leader and was instrumental in getting the prison built. He is known as the Father of Reykjavík and was the first Icelandic (sub-)governor. He lived and is buried on Viðey Island. Here is a great video about Viðey.
You can learn more about burials and genealogy of the Icelandic people in Iceland, Canada, America, and other places where Icelanders live by becoming a member of the Icelandic Roots Database. Find the story of your family!