Monday, 11 November 2013

Crime, Punishment and Prisons in the Victorian Era

Despite many positive aspects, such as the developments in railway travel and medical equipment, the Victorian era is also often associated with its negative aspects. While the upper-classes led relatively easy lives, the lower-class Victorians had to work long hours to barely keep their families alive. The desire to survive led many people to commit crimes, as well as many women, like Nancy in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (1837), to prostitution. The large number of 'fallen women' that flooded the streets in the developing cities also made it an easy environment for individuals, such as the still unidentified serial killer, 'Jack the Ripper', to murder numerous women.

The five women believed to be victims of 'Jack the Ripper'

Types of crimes and punishment
While prostitution and drunkenness were a common sight on England's streets, there were also a number of other crimes being committed. The Industrial Revolution brought about a number of changes to manufacturing and transport throughout England between the late 18th century and early 19th century. This also caused a change in crime across England's cities, just as the Victorian era was beginning. The growing populations within cities saw somewhat wealthy,
upper-class citizens living within relatively close proximity of poor, lower-class citizens, as can be seen in the portion of Charles Booth's 'London Poverty Map' to the left, which he created in the late 19th century in order to study the levels of poverty within London. As a result of this, there was a dramatic increase in many forms of robbery and burglary being committed against the upper-class citizens. 

The introduction of railway lines across the country also brought a number of new, petty crimes with it, such as failing to pay to travel by rail, or acts of vandalism on or around the railway tracks. For example, using the Old Bailey criminal trial database, I found a case from 1851 in which two boys, Joseph Gutteridge (Fourteen years old) and Cornelius Upton (Thirteen years old), were accused of “feloniously putting a stone upon a certain railway, with intent to obstruct an engine using the said railway”, of which they were found guilty. The oldest of the two boys was sentenced to six weeks confinement, while the younger boy was sentenced to two months confinement, as the judge considered him “the most blameablet he having be in an engineer's employment”. Judging by the punishments they received, attempting to disrupt a train might seem to have been a quite serious crime, but when you consider the other forms of punishment the Victorian authorities used, two months in prison does not seem bad at all.

To get an idea of how Victorian criminals were punished, I looked at Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, which is the story of a Victorian orphan, who escapes the workhouse where he grew up and travels to London. There he meets Fagin and his pickpockets and falls in to a life of crime, before being rescued by an upper-class gentleman, Mr. Brownlow. Dickens' novel sees a number of characters punished for the crimes they commit throughout, three of which are punished in ways that were commonly used in 19th century society. The first is the Artful Dodger, a skilled pickpocket who steals for Fagin, who is sentenced to go “abroad for a common twopenny-halfpenny sneeze-box” (405). Dickens' is referring to transportation, which was a common punishment up until 1857, where the criminal would be sent away from Britain to serve their sentence. Next we have Fagin, who takes children off of the streets and trains them to steal for him, who is sentenced “to be hanged by the neck, till he was dead” (500). Hanging was, although the most severe form of punishment, still commonly used to punish for a number of serious and, what we may now consider, minor offences. Finally, the reader is told of the fate of Monks (Oliver's evil half-brother), who moved to America after the events of Dickens' story, where he “fell into his old courses […] and died in prison” (507). 

19th century prisons
When Charles Dickens was aged just 12, his father, John Dickens, was imprisoned for 3 months in the Marshalsea Prison for debts he owed to a baker. As a result of these money troubles, his wife and three of their children, including Charles, also had to move in to Marshalsea. If you have read Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit, which heavily features the Marshalsea Prison, it will be clear to you that the 3 months that he spent at the prison made a lasting impression on him. However, Dickens' descriptions of the cells inside the Newgate Prison, within Oliver Twist, will provide you with a more precise idea of what it would have been like to have occupied a Victorian prison cell. Dickens writes that the “cell was in shape and size something like an area cellar, only not so light. It was most intolerably dirty” (86). But are Dickens' descriptions accurate? Judging by the image below, Dickens had a clear idea of these things.

A Victorian prison cell taken from the 'Wellclose Prison', now on display at the Museum of London

A “cube 7 feet by 12, with a barred window of ground glass at one end, and a black painted door at the other” (27), Frederick Brocklehurst, a member of the then newly formed Independent Labour Party, describes in Philip Priestley's book, Victorian Prison Lives, English Prison Biography 1830-1914. If you wish to learn of the experiences of Victorian prisoners directly from the prisoners themselves, then Priestley's book is a good place to start. 

The Victorian prison system was based on the ideas of two individuals, Sir Joshua Jebb and Sir Edmund DuCane. Early in the Victorian period, Jebb began to advocate the 'separate' approach, which “located prisoners in individual cells where they were held in strict solitary confinement. Reform was to be brought about by the influences of solitude, prayer, simple work, and the ministrations of sober, upright and god-fearing attendants” (6). However, it was found that this method of rehabilitation often drove prisoners to madness and failed to produce the desired changes. DuCane designed an approach to rival this, which was referred to as the 'silent' system, where prisoners were “kept in solitude at night but allowed to congregate during the day, in strictly enforced silence, for work and worship” (6). 

The prison routine was simple. According to Arthur Griffiths, who was the assistant deputy governor at Chatham prison in during the 1870s, “The first bell to rouse out the convicts was at 5.30 a.m.” (82). At 6.30 the doors were unlocked for inmates to empty their slop-buckets and fill their water cans before breakfast. They would then be required to take part in up to an hour of exercise. At 8.30 the prisoners would head to the chapel, whether they believed in Christianity or not, as Henry Harcourt found out in 1864 when he attempted to worship something other than the permitted Church of England, Roman Catholic or Judaism beliefs. They would then go about their 'hard labour', which could have been a number of tasks, from restoring old rope, to sewing coal-sacks. I bet they couldn't wait for their dinner of, in the words of Frederick Brocklehurst, “brown-to-black bread and […] 'stirabout'” (151).

Stirabout: a mixture of meat, potatoes, oatmeal and onions

Works cited
- Dickens, C. Oliver Twist. London: Penguin popular classics,1994.
- Priestley, P. Victorian Prison Lives: English Prison Biography 1830-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- Old Bailey Online. Joseph Gutteridge, Cornelius Upton, Damage to Property. 1851. 11 November 2013 <>
- National Archives. Crime and Punishment. 11 November 2013 <>


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. A very descriptive work on crime and punishment. Though the crowded streets of England was a market place for criminals, you tell us that characters in 'Oliver Twist' get punished for their wrongdoings. The crowded streets gave these criminals space to perform, yes, however in 'Oliver Twist' we see that criminals experience death penalties, which also builds the moral of the book. Your example about railway crimes is something I think we can empathise with today; often passengers are caught without oyster cards and likewise which they are fined for. Very nice to read your blog.