Bookworm Hienrichs: Welcome, one and all, to this month’s Aether Salon! Today, New Babbage’s own Tepic Harlequin will regale us with tales of Punishment in Victorian times.
And now, to introduce our speaker. Though Tepic Harlequin doesn’t need much of an introduction for New Babbagers. He’s been a fixture here for several years, checking his vole traps, running his urchin tavern, and generally making mischief. Though he’s never actually been caught, I’m not surprised that he knows all about punishments for crimes. *wink*
Please welcome him to our stage!
Tepic Harlequin: Good evening, Ladies an Gents of the Jury…. errrr…. audience… and the rest of yer all as well!
Actually, since this talk is about punishment, it’s a bit late to be addressing the jury, that bit’s over and done with and now yer going to have to live with the consequences!
But what would they be, what is your unfortunate fate to come? Well, here in our fair City it works quite nicely, we have laws but little enforcement, much of our justice depends on what the individual can administer.
In some other places they have it much more organised, and we will be looking at how they have done it in that far off land, Britain over the past century – we are in the 189xs so I’m talking from 1800 up to the present day.
We’ve all read about how awful it was, how yer could be hung for stealing a crust of bread and yes, it punishment has been harsh, but there are a lot of misconceptions that people truly believe. Let’s have a look at some, starting with…. hanging!
Oh, grim it is, just look at the scaffold i am standing on, a typical example of a short drop scaffold, used in most places up until 1874 when the long drop replaced it completely. The short drop was awful as you strangled slowly, very nasty.
But hanging was not all that common. At the beginning of the century you could be sentenced to hang for over 200 crimes, some of them very minor, and there was great public unrest about the number of hangings for petty crime such as pick pocketing or stealing food.
Oddly, public hangings were good venues for pick pockets!
In 1823 the list of Capital crimes were reduced by over 100 by Sir Robert Peel, which just goes to show he wasn’t all bad, despite inventing the police. By 1830 horse theft and housebreaking were also removed from the list.
Then, in 1868 all hangings were in private, inside the prison walls, removing the threat of civil unrest and removing a good event for local tradesmen, who were in the habit of selling souvenirs to the watching crowd.
Stereo Nacht: Souvenirs?
Garnet Psaltery: Teeth
Lady Sumoku: The invention of the bobble-head!
Stereo Nacht: Eep!
Zsophia Innovia: ick
Darlingmonster Ember: winces
Emerson Lighthouse snickers at Lady Sumoku
Tepic Harlequin: Yep, including written copies of the prisoner’s last speech and lengths of the rope used to hang him or her….
Stereo Nacht: I’ll pass, thank you!
So everyone was hung then? Wrong! Most sentences to hang were recorded as being given, then commuted to some other punishment. Over 60% of recorded Capital convictions were commuted.
How many people do you think were actually hung in Britain between 1800 and 1900? I know we ain’t reached 1900 yet, but have a guess!
Records show that during the century 3524 people were hanged, of which 1353 were hanged for murder. (As a comparison, over 14,000 people were reported murdered during 2012 in the US).
The youngest person hanged was 14. John Any Bird Bell was executed on 1st August 1831 for the murder of a 13 year old boy. There are reports of younger children being hanged, but either the sentence was commuted or the age appears incorrect – 19 being written as 9, for example.
Wulfriðe Blitzen raises her hand for a moment
Tepic Harlequin: a question?
Wulfriðe Blitzen: When the London Museum excavated one of the former gaol graveyards, the youngest hanging victim was sadly….10.
Tepic Harlequin: You are correct, before 1800 there were younger victims of the hangman
Tepic Harlequin: however, according to official records, John Bell was the youngest in the 1800s
During the century, around 64 people of 19 or under were hanged.
The population was much smaller of course, though during the century it grew enormously. The number of crimes committed grew at an even faster rate than the population, mainly due to the boom of industrial slums and city living. The increase in crime was of great concern to the public, and there was a demand for better punishment even though hanging was going out of favour for minor crimes.
So, what happened to everyone else? Well, we know from books and those new fangled pictures the Lumier bothers are showing that anyone not given a hemp neck tie was shoved on a boat and transported to the other side of the world, Australia!
Errrr…. well…. actually, that’s not quite true…..
Transportation was used in the early part of the century, and a lot of people were sent off to work in various colonies, including America, South Africa, the West Indies (this was a very effective death sentence due to the diseases there), and of course, Australia.
These colonies needed labour, and the transportees were a valuable resource in opening up new territories. However, by the middle of the century transportation had virtually died out, due to the expense of sending large numbers of prisoners a long way, but mainly because the colonies refused to take any more convicts.
You had to be sentenced to 7 years or more to be transported, and it is very interesting to note that lists of transportees, particularly younger ones, show this to be the usual sentence.
Oddly, for young people, transportation was seen not only as a punishment but also as a way of giving them a new start in life, taking them out of their bad environment, working them to establish a good work ethic and maybe giving them a trade.
There was also a change in how people were transported, from being chained in large numbers on early voyages, without ever seeing anything for months except the lower decks, to the later ships which tended to have few professional crew, paying passengers, and the convicts were expected to work as unpaid crew.
Well, we still had the good old pillory and the stocks, that used to sort out the miscreants!
Ah, yes….. well… the pillory was abolished in 1837, having been used only for perjury or subordination (don’t ask what that means!), and the stocks, although being used until 1872, had been used less and less often.
Oh….. how about flogging, we know that was used all the time…
Actually, flogging, in the form of whipping or birching was used throughout the century, though public flogging was abolished in 1830. It was used more commonly in the armed forces where a more brutal form of punishment was seen as essential to keeping the forces in order.
Only males over the age of 14 could be whipped, which was done by a regulation cat-o-nine tails. There were strict guidelines to the composition and construction of the whip, none of that knotted ends or bits of glass stuff!
Anyone could be birched, with again strict regulations as to the birch that was used. It was usually only used on juveniles, and was seen as a humiliating punishment.
There were also regulations to cover the birching of offenders by the Police for offences too trivial to take to Court, and these ad hoc punishments, though they would have to be recorded in the Officer’s notebook, would not make the Court records.
We have looked at some of the punishments we all thought were used, so what actually happened to the poor souls who were convicted?
From the beginning of the century, imprisonment was increasingly being used as punishment, where previously it have only been where you waited for your punishment. I am excluding Debtor’s Prisons from this talk, as they are a weird thread in absurdity, what we will look at is criminal prisons.
Initially, prisoners had to buy their own food and other goods, with the strange situation that some were let out to beg by the prison gates. All the prisoners were mixed together, men, women and children, often in overcrowded, filthy and unhygienic conditions.
It was quite clear to the powers that be that the system was not working, so new ideas had to be tried. By the middle of the century, 90 new prisons had been build, usually on one of two model designs. They had separate accommodations for men, women and children, were clean (by the standards of the time), had sanitation, clear rules and set menus.
The conditions, including the menus, were deliberately not good, to show the prisoner they were being punished, and to show the public that criminals were not being treated better than they were (this is still a common misconception!).
One prison asked its trustees to reduce the quality of the menu as it was being compared favourably with the local Workhouse, but after consideration and an investigation this was turned down, the investigator reporting that inmates would most definitely prefer the Workhouse.
On a side note, the Workhouse is a much misunderstood institution. It too was deliberately hard, but was a last resort for its inmates, who had to apply to get in!
The reformers who had stated the whole idea of a new punishment system were certainly not the woolly headed liberals some of the old guard portrayed them as. They intended the system to rehabilitate the criminal, and set about designing ways in which to effect the change.
Hard labour was an integral part of the new prisons, mostly pointless, repetitive hard graft, such as the treadmill or crank. Both had to be turned a certain number of times a day or a punishment would be applied. This could be a bread and water diet (rather than the bread, water, and a few other things that made up the main menu) or other restrictions. Quite what more could be done is unclear, as the regime was harsh.
Younger prisoners might be made to pick oakum, which means unraveling old rope into short threads that would be used to caulk wooden ships. It was a hard, dirty and unpleasant job, the only saving grace being that it would probably be done in a large room with other prisoners, so you got to see other people.
Most prisoners were kept in single confinement. This was to let them have time to contemplate their crimes and to become penitent – which is why some prisons were called penitentiaries. The cells were built with thick, often double or triple walls to prevent communication by tapping or drilling holes and the windows were deep set so the prisoner could not see anyone else.
But they could still talk to one another? Well no, silence was the rule and it was a rule that was enforced very harshly. Prisoners were not permitted to speak unless spoken to by an official who would give them permission to reply. This was not only in their cells, but also in all other areas, including the exercise yard. Some prisons had long knotted ropes, with knots five yards apart, and during exercise the prisoners had to hold a knot and the rope had to be kept taut between them.
As a side note, in British prisons, silence was the rule until the mid 1950s….
One thing that was taught in the prisons was reading. Any ideas why?
It was so the prisoners could read the Bible and understand with Divine Guidance where they had gone wrong in life and how they should behave.
It was a hard life, those who had long sentences often became institutionalised and were unable to cope on being released, often committing a crime to be sent back to those dreadful places.
So what about the younger people sent into the prison system, were they treated differently?
It really depended on your age and what you had done. If you were over 14 or had committed a very serious crime, you were treated as an adult in prison, with the same harsh treatment.
The records do show that younger people were often sentenced to a few days to a few months imprisonment, with a certain number of days hard labour, possibly with the intention of administering a short, sharp shock. Considering the number of reoffenders, it is uncertain how well this worked.
There was a route persistent or serious young criminals could go that was not available to their older counterparts, and that was the Reformatory system.
Children would be sentenced to a term of imprisonment, then five or more years in a Reformatory, depending on their age.
The Reformatories were created to teach young offenders a trade while removing them from the bad environment they were living in. They would also be given an education.
They were usually in isolated rural areas and included farm land that the children had to work.
Work was the order of the day, all the chores, maintenance, washing, cooking and cleaning would be done by the inmates, overseen by a small staff of adults. Punishment was harsh, often arbitrary, and although they were supposed to be run by the Trustees, they were usually run entirely by the Master.
Children from about the age of nine would be sent to Reformatories, though younger ones may also have been sent to them – records concerning these institutions are notably sketchy.
Younger children were punished either by their parents, by local police, or could be taken into care by the Court. This would usually mean they would be sent to an orphanage or the Workhouse.
In conclusion, we can see that punishments became less severe over the century, or at least you were less likely to get hanged. Punishments were more organised and regulated. Attempts were made to improve prisoners conditions, and attempts were made to reform prisoners.
I hope you have enjoyed this talk, and always remember, best not to get caught, and if you are, hire the best lawyer you can afford, cus yer don’t want to end up in the Tanty!
Steadman Kondor: charles dickens wasn’t also in the workhouse was he?
Tepic Harlequin: Charles Dickens spent time in Debtor’s Prison with his family, as his father was sent there, he did not go to the Workhouse or Prison in his own right
Tepic Harlequin: He went out and was working to pay his family out of debt
Steadman Kondor: how about ‘fallen women’?
Steadman Kondor: they were not imprisoned were they?
Tepic Harlequin: Fallen women.. well, not much experience of them meself, but yes, they were imprisoned, often in the Asylums, which were worse than the prisons!
Bookworm Hienrichs: Thank you all for coming, and be sure to join us next month!