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Industrial Revolution: Crime & Punishment

What was the 'Bloody Code'? • Prison and Penal Reform in the 1800s •  MyLearning

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The move to the cities from the countryside during the Industrial Revolution brought with it a change in the level and types of crimes being committed. This change in crime also brought with it significant changes in how crimes were policed and punished. Read through the resources below to learn more about crime and punishment during the Industrial Revolution.

Juvenile crime in the 19th century (British Library, 2014, May 15)

Novels such as Oliver Twist have made Victorian child-thieves familiar to us, but to what extent did juvenile crime actually exist in the 19th century? Drawing on contemporary accounts and printed ephemera, Dr. Matthew White uncovers the facts behind the fiction.

Victorian prisons and punishments (British Library, 2009, October 14)

Victorian citizens were worried about the rising crime rate. Liza Picard considers how this concern brought about changes in the way people were caught, arrested and imprisoned.

Crime & punishment in the 18th and 19th century (John Smeaton Academy, n.d.)

This worksheet provides a good basic summary of some of the most important information about crime and punishment during the Industrial Revolution, including key figures in reform, the main crimes, punishments and methods of law enforcement.

Crime and punishment in Georgian England (British Library, 2009, October 14)

From gruesome, public executions to Georgian Britain’s adoration of the ‘heroic’ highwayman, Matthew White investigates attitudes to crime and punishment in Georgian Britain.

Broadside about the execution of Catherine Foster

By the mid-19th century public executions were relatively uncommon spectacles. Only murderers received the death penalty after 1830 in Britain, the majority of whom were men. The sight of a murderess on the gallows was therefore the source of much public fascination and horror. This bill refers to the execution of Catherine Foster who was hanged at Bury St Edmunds jail in April 1847 at the age of only 17. Foster was condemned for killing her new husband of only a few months by lacing his dumplings with arsenic.

This poster is unusual as it reflects the growing dissatisfaction among politicians and the legal profession with capital punishment by the early Victorian period. Although public executions remained highly popular events among the general public (over 10,000 people attended Foster’s hanging) campaigners began to express concern that any moral lessons to be gained were lost on the excitable and insensible crowds who came to watch. Greater sensitivity and squeamishness of these events among the political elite eventually led to executions being conducted inside prisons after 1868, although the death penalty itself remained in place in for many decades to come.

Broadside about the transportation of William Dale

This evangelical pamphlet tells the story of William Dale, a good and diligent child who ‘backslid from the paths of religion and honesty’. Eventually he was convicted of stealing from ‘a Merchant’s house in the city’ and sentenced to a period in a penal colony in Botany Bay, Australia (now part of Sydney Harbour). The practice of sending criminals abroad was known as ‘transportation’. It had started in the 1750s and had always been controversial. While some argued that a transported convict had more rights and liberty than an equivalent convict in an English jail, the penal colonies themselves were often places of murderous violence and summary justice. Transportation was also used predominantly on the poor: an uneducated housebreaker was far more likely to be sentenced to the boat than a middle-class murderer. Transportation from England was officially ended in 1853. The catalyst for the change was explosive economic growth in Australia, and in particular the New South Wales gold rushes of the 1840s. European migrants to Australia now began to object to the settlement of convicts in their newly prosperous communities, and fought vigorous and successful anti-transport campaigns.

Broadside on 'The Dreadful Life and Confession of a Boy Aged Twelve Years'

The broadside shown here details the case of a 12 year old boy prosecuted for attempted burglary in 1829. Though young defendants were frequently found guilty and sentenced to death, by the late 18th century juveniles rarely perished on the gallows in Britain (though one boy of 14 years was executed for murder in Maidstone, Kent, as late as 1831). In general young boys and girls found guilty of committing felonies received sentences of transportation to Australia and other far-flung colonies.

Concerns with levels of juvenile crime grew rapidly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly after several pamphlets were published detailing the activities of organized gangs. London magistrate Patrick Colquhoun for example produced several pamphlets in the 1790s detailing the specific activities of the gangs of boys active along the Thames river front, which he believed cost merchants nearly £1 million each year in stolen property. Such prejudices against poor young boys were widely held in the first half of the 19th century and were reproduced in popular literature, most famously in Fagin’s gang of pickpocketing youths depicted by Charles Dickens’ in Oliver Twist.

Broadside on 'The Trial and Sentence of Dr Barnard'

The 19th century was a period in which matters of law and order became steadily more regulated, not least through the professional incorporation of local police forces throughout Britain. Incarceration and sentencing became less of an arbitrary practice as a result, with less opportunity for the well off or well-connected to buy themselves out of trouble.

The case detailed in this broadside is an unusual one because the perpetrator has committed a capital crime (murder) but has nonetheless been sentenced to penal transportation, rather than death by hanging or incarceration for life in a British prison. Transportation was the name given to the practice of sending criminals to penal outposts in colonial territories, particularly Australia. While the practice had been ongoing since the 17th century, by the time of this case transportation was widely used as a means of meeting labour shortages in British colonies. It was therefore usually reserved for very minor crimes (pickpocketing, theft), which meant it was mostly used on the very poor.

Transportation had one advantage over traditional incarceration in that long-serving prisoners could apply to colonial governors for various otherwise proscribed freedoms, which meant that some were able to marry and start families even while technically still prisoners.

Building plan of Newgate Prison

Justice was swift, harsh and haphazard in the late 1700s, and there were over 200 capital offences. There was no police force – execution was supposed to work as a deterrent. Prisons were privately run, with prisoners paying or bribing to receive privileges, and conditions inside were terrible.

Newgate was London’s largest prison, housing 40–50 prisoners. Dating from 1188, it was demolished in 1777 and rebuilt to this design – seen here in a copy from 1800 – by George Dance the Younger (1741–1825). The brutal, almost windowless appearance was an intentional part of punishment and deterrence.

After the Prison was razed by protestors in the Gordon Riots of June 1780, the replacement was finished in 1782. The following year, the site of London’s public executions was moved there from Tyburn.

Death was by hanging, in front of eager crowds, with little effort towards humane dispatch: victims usually took many minutes to die by strangulation. Between 1783 and 1799, 559 people – 17 of them women – were put to death at Newgate: 35 a year on average, though one day alone saw 20. The last public hanging was at Newgate in 1868.

The Criminal Prisons of London by Henry Mayhew

The Criminal Prisons of London was reforming journalist Henry Mayhew’s sequel to his monumental oral history of mercantile London life, London Labour and the London Poor (1861)Like that book, much of the content here is direct oral testimony from prisoners, guards and wardens – preserving as much as possible the pronunciation and dialect inflections of each speaker.

The Criminal Prisons of London has a much more obvious analytical focus than the earlier work, however. Drawing on his experience as a journalist, and the research skills of his co-author John Binny, Mayhew produces a lengthy investigation into all aspects of the criminal justice system in Britain – with detailed statistics on arrests and convictions, descriptions of disciplinary methods in prisons, and how criminals are classified in order to be sent into a particular form of custody.  He concluded that all London prisons were lacking in basic human necessities, but that some were more lacking than others.

A sometime editor of the satirical magazine Punch, Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) was born into a conservative family, but was inspired into reforming zeal in 1849 by his experience reporting on the devastating effects on the poor of a cholera outbreak in Bermondsey, South London.

'Police Work in the East End' from The Graphic

'I didn’t get much hurt,' says an anonymous police constable in the article accompanying this illustration. 'I lost my helmet and my lantern and got my shins kicked – but then we’re used to that'. He describes intervening in a fight between brothers in Pearl Street in Wapping, East London. 'No sooner did the other brother see both my hands busy than he came straight for me with a knife. I let go my right hand and got at my truncheon and fetched him one with it right on his head'.

The Metropolitan Police Force of London was established in 1829 after a 17-year-debate on how best to control and protect the growing urban population. In the time the debate took to conclude, various social problems such as overcrowding and petty crime only grew in frequency and severity. The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 undertook to combine into one service the various parish-by-parish forces that had operated until then. It also undertook to professionalise policing and pay constables a wage (rather than relying on unpaid volunteers). Within 18 months, the new police force had 3,200 members patrolling London in their distinctive blue uniforms. As this illustration and its accompanying text show, the police were not always popular – being held by many among the working class to be little short of a civilian army controlled by local government.