Sunday, 30 November 2014

Victorian Law: Crime and Punishment

Britain's current law system is a  very different image to that of the Victorian era.  The severity of punishment for different offences varies, but the very worst a criminal can be sentenced is life imprisonment. Despite our country having arguably one of the fairest current legal systems, this has not always been the case. The Victorians were notorious for the cruelty of their punishments, and an extraordinarily high crime rate. Statistically, offences rose from approximately 5,000 annually in 1800 to around 20,000 by 1840. This was a cause for concern, as one the main contributors to this surge in crime was the poverty and deprivation endured by the working class. The London Metropolitan Police Force was founded in 1829 to help enforce the law and catch offenders, but could not control the insatiable levels of crime.

If you ask somebody about Victorian crime, murder and prostitution are normally the answers that first spring to mind. It is true that prostitution was a huge problem for the Victorians. Although the exact statistics are difficult to pin point, William Acton revealed in his book 'Prostitution', the police estimates of approximately 8,600 active prostitutes in London during 1857 (Acton 16). These were mostly working class women, who were driven into selling their bodies because they had few alternative options for employment in a patriarchal society. It was a risky lifestyle in many senses, with sexual transmitted diseases and the general danger of walking the streets alone. The infamous brutal murder of five prostitutes that became known as the Jack the Ripper case, dragged prostitution
An example of the media sensationalism surrounding Jack the Ripper
under the public spotlight. All the victims lived and worked in the deeply impoverished Whitechapel area, and Charles Booth's famous poverty map marks many of the streets where the crimes occurred in black, meaning "Vicious, semi criminal". The harsh reality of these conditions shocked the public into action, and in the two decades following the murders many of the buildings that made up these London slums were demolished. However, prostitutes were not the only victims of serial killers. Other prominent cases such as Amelia Dyer (responsible for the murder of hundreds of infants) contributed to a media frenzy. 

'Illustrated Chips' July 17th, 1897
While sensationalist crimes like the Jack the Ripper case drew media attention worldwide, these only made up a tiny part of overall offences. In fact, the most common offences across the Victorian era were petty crimes. Theft was particularly prominent, with young males being the most common offenders. Even children as young as eleven were frequently punished for pick pocketing or stealing minor items, like food to feed their families.  In cities, thieves would often operate in groups of two or three, to provide decoys for the main pickpocket. 

Britain's drinking culture is nothing new, and during the 19th century, drunkenness was a common sight on the streets. Alcohol was easy to obtain, but intoxication was frowned upon in Victorian society because of its association with the working classes. The constant struggle to find employment would have driven many to drink as a means of escapism from the hardships of lower class life. In an attempt to lessen the country's drinking problem, The Temperance Movement (urging for moderation or abstinence from alcohol) was formed from the late 1830s. Charities such as Band of Hope (now Hope UK) were founded to warn young people about the dangers of excessive alcohol use, and the destructive behaviour that follows. This movement appeared to be successful, as by 1870, alcohol consumption rates had dropped.

Ray Winstone as Abel Magwitch in the BBC 2011 adaption
Criminality and the representation of criminals is a significant theme in Charles Dickens' 'Great Expectations'. The most interesting example is Pip's eventual benefactor Abel Magwitch, who is initially presented as a vile and contemptible criminal. He is even given the stereotypical image of a vagrant projected by the upper classes, described as resembling a "Prisoner, Felon, Bondsman" (Dickens 598). However, even though he is a hardened thief, his humble generosity in helping Pip makes him one of the most admirable characters in the book. By his death towards the end of the novel, he is a peaceful and contented man. It seems he is more a victim of a society that had no sympathy for obsessed with class divisions.  

Victorians strongly believed that criminals should be punished for their wrongdoings. Punishment would depend on the seriousness of the offence committed, though it was essentially impossible to get off 'scot-free' in any instance. Capital punishment was commonly used for the most serious offences, but had been steadily declining since the start of the 19th century. Before the 1800s, capital punishment was common practice for an array of crimes, from petty to serious. Although the peak year of 1801 saw 219 people executed, this merciless method of punishment became more unpopular in the light  of reform. In the first half of the 19th century, a series of Acts of Parliament reduced the number of crimes punishable by death. By 1861, there were only five offences that qualified for capital punishment - murder, treason, espionage, piracy and arson in royal dockyards. Public executions, once a public spectacle, were eventually abolished with the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868. Michael Barrett, sentenced to hanging in May 1868 for his role in the Clerkenwell bombing, was the last person to be publicly executed in England. Barrett appeared to show no remorse over his actions, as moments before his death he proclaimed - 

"If it is murderous to love Ireland dearer than I love my life, then it is true, I am a murderer ... If I could, by any means, redress the wrongs of that persecuted land by the sacrifice of my life, I would willingly and gladly do so."

After this, all executions took place within prison walls. Hanging was the typical form of execution, as it gave a quick and easy death.

Transportation concerned the sending of criminals to a penal colony (normally Australia) to serve their sentence, and was used as an alternative when capital punishment seemed too extreme. Initially any offender with a sentence of seven years or longer could be transported, and was a favourable form of discipline because  it had far cheaper costs than keeping a criminal in prison. Although the majority criminals  were allowed to return after serving their sentence, most continued to live in their new country, as organising and affording a voyage home would have been incredibly difficult. Many felt it was being used merely as a deterrent by physically removing unfavourable characters from society, rather than attempting to reform them. This lead to an opposition towards penal transportation, and following a decrease in use, it was abolished with the Penal Servitude Act of 1857.

John Greening's record
As the popularity of hanging and transportation decreased, the numbers of offenders sent to prison rose. The government invested millions into the prison system, with 90 built or added to between 1842 and 1877. There was a general belief that prisons should deter criminals from re-offending, and in consequence, the conditions were grim. A system of 'hard labour' forced prisoners to endure monotonous, difficult work from walking a treadmill to picking apart old pieces of rope and rags. This could last from one week, to several months or years for more serious convictions. Even young offenders could be sentenced to this arduous regime, for example, eleven year old John Greening was convicted of "Stealing a quarter of gooseberries" and received one month's hard labour, with five years of reformation. This seems like an unnecessarily harsh punishment for a child, and despite even more urges for reform in the later 19th century, conditions for both adults and children remained bleak.

The Victorian punishment system was not sympathetic with criminals, regardless of their background or motives to break the law. The sheer poverty brought on by the industrial revolution meant however, that the many of these minor offenders had no other choice if they wanted to sustain their livelihood and families.

Works Cited

Acton, William. Prostitution. London: J Churchill. 1867. Print.

Booth, Charles. Poverty Map. 20th November 2014                                                         <,180400,6,large,>      

Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868. 25th November 2014.        <>

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. London: Penguin. 1911. Print

“…Four Killed and Forty Wounded was the Tally, and Indignation Raged….” Or: The Clerkenwell Prison Explosion of 1867:                 <,28804,1916164_1916186_1916177,00.html michael barrett>

National Archives. Victorian children in trouble with the law. 23rd November 2014.                                                           <>

Penal Servitude Act of 1857. 25th November 2014.                           <>

Images Used (Jack the Ripper) Magwitch john greening document

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