Saturday, 27 October 2012

Crime and Punishment in Georgian / Victorian Britain

Rochester City Old Postcard
Punishment often did not fit the crime in 18th/19th century Britain.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, capital punishment in the UK was a fact of life for a range of serious and petty crimes, including theft. Sometimes, the sentence was reduced to transportation or imprisonment.

Thirty-seven prisoners condemned at Maidstone's Spring Assizes in 1802 had been guilty of sheep-stealing, burglary, highway robbery and murder. Four of these were hanged at Shooters Hill, fifteen at Penenden Heath and the remainder were reprieved. Three young men were hanged for arson at Penenden Heath in 1830. The following year, a scaffold erected at the new Maidstone Prison made Penenden Heath redundant.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, children and young adults were severely sentenced for crimes such as murder, property crimes, highway robbery and arson. Michael and Ann Hammond, brother and sister, were the youngest children to be executed in Britain. They were just seven and eleven years old, and they were hanged at Kings Lynn in Norfolk in the East of England on 18 September, 1708. Their terrible crime? It was theft! It was reported that it thundered after the execution, and Anthony Smyth, the hangman, died two weeks later.

Saved in the Final Hour - a Felon Tells How it Felt

John Smith was hanged at Tyburn on 25 December 1705, but he did not die, and after fifteen minutes the crowd shouted for him to be cut down. He was taken to a house of safety, where he shortly recovered, and he was able to describe his experience. This is what he said, and no doubt others have experienced the same, although few survive to tell the tale.

"When I was turned off I was, for some time, sensible of a very great pain occasioned by the weight of my body and felt my spirits in strange commotion, violently pressing upwards. Having forced their way to my head, I saw a great blaze or glaring light that seemed to go out of my eyes in a flash and then I lost all sense of pain. After I was cut down, I began to come to myself and the blood and spirits forcing themselves into their former channels put me by a prickling and shooting into such intolerable pain that I could have wished those hanged who had cut me down."

The Bodysnatchers

In 1540, Henry VIII ruled that surgeons would be allowed four bodies each of executed criminals per year. Medical schools at this time were desperate for bodies so that their surgeons could dissect them to learn about anatomy and improve their skills. Prior to 1832, unless the court had ordered otherwise, the criminal's body was usually given up to family or friends. After 1834, it was decided that the bodies of the executed belonged to the crown.

Making an Example - the Gibbet

Before 1834, the horrible practice of gibbeting or hanging in chains could be ordered by the courts to make an example to others. After hanging, the prisoners were stripped and dipped in tar. Once it had cooled, they would be placed in an iron cage which was riveted together and hung from the gallows, or sometimes from a specially-built gibbet erected in a prominent place like a crossroads or the top of a hill. This gruesome sight acted as a warning. Sometimes the bodies remained until they decomposed or were eaten by birds.The criminals most likely to be ordered to be gibbeted were highwaymen, murderers or pirates.

On 29 May 1868, Parliament passed the Capital Punishment within Prisons Bill, ending public hanging in Britain. All future executions would take place within the walls of prisons. On 26 May 1868, Michael Barrett, who had tried to blow up Clerkenwell Prison, was executed, and this was the very last public execution. His crime had killed four passers-by and a number of people were injured in the explosion. Three of his accomplices were acquitted before Barrett died in front of a crowd of 2000.

The End of a Barbaric Spectacle 

The first private hanging was carried out at Maidstone Prison two months later on a Dover railway porter who murdered a stationmaster at Dover Priory.

Hanging was finally abolished in the 1960s.

Murder & Crime, Medway, Janet Cameron, Tempus Publishing, 2008
.Murder in Kent, Philip MacDougall, Robert Hale, 1989.
Published on 20 December 2010.

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