Crimes past

Crimes past

Sometimes our forebears turned to crime, whether through desperation or for an adventure. Nell Darby investigates past crimes and the punishments they received

Header Image: The Prison' by William Hogarth

Dr Nell Darby, Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Dr Nell Darby

Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Throughout history, criminals have fallen into two main categories: those who are forced to crime through economic hardship, and those who have acted more out of a sense of excitement, achievement or entitlement – the thrill of the chase.

There has also always been a ‘them versus us’ mentality between the gentry and the labouring class; poachers, for example, in 18th and 19th century history, regarded poaching almost as their right, resenting the money and power of local landowners to maintain lands full of game when others were hungry. Likewise, when parliamentary enclosure occurred during the same eras, many residents continued to take firewood and other goods from the enclosed lands that had traditionally been their common land.

Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking leave of their lovers who are going to Botany Bay
Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking leave of their lovers who are going to Botany Bay (National Library of Australia)

Class and poverty have gone hand in hand with crime. Servants have stolen property from their more wealthy employers, either using it or, more commonly, selling it on, often having to travel some distance away from home in order to sell it without it being recognised as the property of someone else. Others have committed fraud, or created counterfeit coinage in a more ambitious attempt to get money. Poverty and social stigma have led to unmarried mothers killing their babies in order to preserve their jobs and their income.

But other crimes have arisen out of social problems. Britain has had a long history of social drinking, and the village pub was traditionally a place where working men would go after finishing work to relax. Excessive drinking and macho talk often led to fights breaking out, and many men are recorded in local Calendars of Prisoners being tried for assault or even manslaughter after a quarrel with a friend got out of hand.

Pillory, Charing Cross
Pillory, Charing Cross

The Victorians, although seen as strict moralists, actually worked to reduce this number of crimes to a more reasonable amount. Execution by hanging was the usual form of death for those found guilty of such crimes as murder, with hangings being public spectacles until 1868, when they began to be carried out in private within the confines of a prison courtyard.

Bill Thompson a convict in Tasmania
Bill Thompson a convict in Tasmania

For those found guilty but either not given the death penalty, or who had had the penalty commuted, transportation was the most common punishment. You could be transported for life, or for a shorter period – usually seven or 14 years. Until 1776, convicts were sent to America, but the Civil War there ended that option. From 1787, convicts were sent to the new penal colonies at Botany Bay in Australia.

This is not to say that everyone agreed with transportation, and sentences were often commuted. In 1784, for example, William Surry was convicted at Chelmsford Assizes of stealing four cows belonging to Daniel Alger. He was sentenced to seven years’ transportation to America, but The National Archives holds a judge’s report showing that he was subsequently reprieved.

For poor men convicted of crimes, their sentences could impact not only on their own health and wealth, but also that of their families. Two men, William Wade and John Groome, were sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Africa in 1782 after committing a fraud. A petition asking for their reprieve mentioned that Wade was penniless, seriously ill, and had already buried his wife and seven children. Groome had contracted a serious illness in Newgate that had crippled him and affected his speech. His wife and child had been held in Newgate with him since he had been sentenced, and they had both become ill too. There was sympathy for these men’s plight, and they were both reprieved.

Others were given sentences of hard labour at local prisons. Like the task of oakum picking at workhouses, hard labour was meant to be tough, pointless work that sapped the spirit and body of the prisoner. The treadwheel, introduced in 1818, was one example. In the 1820s, The Times reported that some prisoners at Warwick Gaol had to walk the equivalent of 17,000 feet in ten hours.

Northleach Prison
Northleach Prison regarded as insanitary in 1842

Prisons varied enormously in terms of their conditions. Northleach Prison was regarded as an insanitary, dangerous place in 1842, when several prisoners became ill there. One man subsequently died. An investigation found that the prison was very damp, and that prisoners were forced for long spells on the treadwheel, then sent to damp cells in sweaty clothes, causing them to fall ill with lung and respiratory problems. Meagre prison diets made their health even more precarious, with the amount of food and drink a prisoner received depending on the length of their sentence.

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The punishments devised for criminals were designed to act as crime prevention measures, giving criminals a taste of a hard, isolated life that would ensure their good behaviour on their release. However, it is clear that this didn’t work. Many criminals committed crime out of economic necessity, and there are many cases of those who spent much of their lives revolving between prison and workhouse. A spell in prison, or as a convict in Botany Bay, did not make it easy to get and keep a job afterwards. Public executions, too, were seen as serving a useful purpose, with onlookers being so horrified at seeing a convict killed that they would be put off committing crimes in the future. But instead, many executions were seen as excuses to party, being public spectacles where the audience could jeer and boo, buy broadside ballads or confessionals from sellers, get refreshments and a seat in specially constructed stands, such as the one built for the execution of husband and wife murderers Frederick and Marie Manning outside London’s Horsemonger Lane Gaol in 1849.

The realisation that harsh punishments and executions didn’t prevent people from committing crime gradually led to a change towards rehabilitation and social care in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Along with this came a change in attitudes towards children who committed crimes. From being treated as adults – and still sentenced to death or, more commonly, transportation or imprisonment – children started being sent to reformatory schools from the 1850s, which were designed to keep them out of trouble and prevent them from becoming repeat offenders. Census records are useful for detailing the children held in such institutions.

Individual Justices of the Peace or prison governors had always sought to rehabilitate prisoners; JPs had a fair bit of discretion when it came to punishing people, or sending them on to Quarter Sessions, and some judges were more likely than others to commute death sentences. The Home Secretary could also pardon those convicted of capital offences when their friends and families submitted petitions to aid their cases. However, this didn’t always work: when jealous teenager Frederick Jones was sentenced to death after stabbing his girlfriend in Cheltenham, a petition was sent to the Home Office appealing for clemency; it failed, and Frederick was hanged at Gloucester Gaol in 1872.

Criminal justice in Britain maintained an element of Victorian ghoulishness until relatively recent times. The last woman to be hanged in Britain was Ruth Ellis in 1955, with the last male hangings taking place nine years later. The use of silken ropes to kill those convicted of poaching the King’s deer, and other such forms of punishment, are now confined to the history books and sensationalist novels.

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