Victorian Crime and Punishment

Catching the Criminal

  • most prosecutions carried out by private individuals (the victim of the crime), not by the police
  • guilty people were taken to parish constable or magistrate
  • early policemen were known as Perlers or Bobbies
    • set up in London in 1829 by Robert Peel
    • then again after the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 → the start of campaign to improve public law
  • the County Borough Police Act of 1856 saw the start of the Modern Police Service
Types of Offences
  • it depended on the type of offence to which court defendants were sent
  • the normal place of trial were Quarter Sessions and local Petty Sessions
  • two types of offences:
    • Summary Offences
      • people were guilty of minor crimes, e.g. being drunk or causing disturbance
      • sent to Petty Sessions a speedy process and no jury
    • Indictable Offences
      • people were guilty of serious crimes
      • sent to Quarter Sessions (fairly serious offences) in front of a bench of magistrates or before a judge at the Assizes (very serious offences, e. g. murder or robbery with violence)
      • the jury decided on the verdict, the judge or magistrates on the sentence

The Courts and Judiciary

  • court conditions and the treatment of the victim and the accused was very different from today
  • trials were often very quick and prosecutors, judges and jury had more power and choice

Sentences and Punishment

  • Victorians believed in punishment but didn’t know what it could be
  • one attempt to stop the growth of crime was making the punishment severe (hanging or transportation)
    • people were angry and as a result, fewer crimes carried a compulsory death sentence
    • transportation often used for serious crimes
Types of Punishment
  • Transportation
    • criminals were sent to the colonies to serve their sentence any criminal with a sentence 7 years or more
    • it removed the criminals from the society and it was cheap
    • replaced in the Victorian period with Penal Servitude:
      • transportation abolished after the Penal Servitude Act of 1857
      • means ‘serving a sentence that is meant to punish the prisoner’
      • included hard labour and served in the country
    • reasons:
      • to depopulate overcrowded prisons
      • the lack of labourers to support the settlers
  • Hanging
    • the most serious punishment for serious offences (e. g. treason or murder)
    • in 18th century, death sentence was even for minor offences (e. g. picking pockets or stealing food) caused by people in poverty
    • ordered only by the Assize judges
    • at the start of the Victorian period, executions were carried out in public outside the gaol (= jail) they were public spectacles
    • the Prisons Act of 1868 made it mandatory that all executions are made inside the prison
  • Imprisonment
    • not as common until the late 18th century
    • Oscar Wilde imprisoned for homosexuality in 1895
    • prisons served as lock-ups for debtors and places where the accused were kept before the trial
    • in Victorian era, prisons were an acceptable punishment for serious offences and served as a means to prevent crime it became the main form of punishment for all kinds of crimes
    • two types of prison system:
      • county and shires gaols
        • ranged from small lock-ups to large gaols and Houses of Correction
      • convict gaols
        • run by central government in London
        • included holding prisoners as part of the transportation process
        • situated at ports or in decommissioned naval vessels called ‘hulks‘ (used in times of shortage of prisons) poor, insanitary conditions
  • Hard Labour
    • used in quarrying, building roads or labouring on the docks
    • sentenced for a few days, weeks or even years
    • in the early 19th century were kids sent alongside adults
    • reasons:
      • to teach them the value of hard work
      • to prevent others from mischief and committing crime
      • the need for cheap labour
    • also carried out in prisoner’s cell or under guard they walked on a treadmill or a tread wheel which provided flour to make money for the gaol
      • in later times, there was no end product and they walked on it only for a punishment
  • Physical Punishment
    • most of physical punishment had already died out seen as barbaric
    • whipping still seemed just and humane
      • increased in private as other forms of punishment (e. g. hanging) were restricted
      • public whipping of women abolished in 1817, men in the 1830s
      • private whipping not discontinued until 1848
  • Sending to the Armed Forces
    • sometimes they were sent to the navy as it was difficult to recruit people due to the hard conditions
  • Fines
    • not very common as most people were poor and unable to pay

Crime, Poverty and Reforms

  • at the end of 18th century, both crime and poverty increased
    • the Industrial Revolution made many people rich but some (both in rural and urban areas) were very poor
  • the crime rate increased rapidly as people moved to towns and cities increase in theft and rioting and public disturbances
  • in rural areas, many labourers couldn’t support their families and they turned to crime poaching common in rural areas and petty theft in urban areas
  • the mid 19th century was a time of great social unrest
    • several movements led to civil disturbances – Chartist Movement – people from working-class were upset that they don’t have the right to vote

Crime and the Victorians

  • they had faith in progress and believed that crime could be beaten
  • it was practise in the Metropolitan Police until the 1930s that thefts were reported as lost property
  • violent behaviour was frowned upon and severely punished by courts
    • the new police forces established across the whole country in the 1850s helped to suppress these forms of public behaviour
Sensational Crimes
  • the general pattern of crimes was declining but there were occasional panics and scares generated by appalling offences
    • in 1850s and 1860s were panics about street robbery known as ‘garrotting
    • the murders of the Jack the Ripper in the autumn of 1888 confined to a small area of London provoked a nation-wide
  • most offenders were young males and most offences were petty thefts
  • most offences committed by women were prostitution ‘victimless’ crimes
  • domestic violence rarely came before the courts it could destroy the family’s reputation
  • big financial scandals and frauds committed by businessmen were described as an exception to the rule – ‘a black sheep’ or ‘a rotten apple’ but not a criminal
‘Criminal Classes’
  • at the beginning of the Victorian era, criminals were equated to working-class people who were considered reluctant to do an honest day’s work and preferred idleness, drinks and an easy life
  • by the middle of the century, ‘criminal classes’ suggested a social group stuck at the bottom of the society
  • at the end of the century, due to the developments of psychiatry and Social Darwinism, criminals were identified as an individual suffering from a form of behavioural abnormality that has been inherited or nurtured by parents
Penal Policies
  • at the beginning of the Victorian era, capital punishment remained only for murderers and traitors
  • transportation was at its peak in 1830s and ended in 1850s due to the hostility of colonists in Australia who objected to their land being used as a dumping ground
  • England clung to corporal (= physical) punishment until the 20th century
Detective Policing
  • England’s most famous detective Sherlock Holmes at the end of the century – he solved his cases through his intellect
  • detective police officers were seen as an intrusive system of spies and surveillance
  • most offenders put before court were from the working-class and male
  • they provided the image of ‘the criminal‘ even though their crimes were petty in comparison to the frauds committed by middle-class businessmen
  • women put before the court were treated more harshly they transgressed the law and the perceptions of womanhood
  • the Victorians believed that crime was in decline but the facts and events (e. g. Jack the Ripper) speak otherwise

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