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Crime and Hanging

1. Urban growth and London

  • London had 575,000 in 1700 and 959,000 in 1801 - by 1831 - it rose again to 1.7 million
  • it was not only the greatest city of Europe - it was the metropolis
  • social relations there were more distant and more casual than elsewhere
  • it led the new consumerism - the shop was a normal feature of the scene by the late 17thC.
  • Changes in crime and concerns over crime were inevitably linked to this extraordinary urban growth


2. Forms of law enforcement in the 18thC.

How was the law enforced in the eighteenth century?


  • early modern London had Houses of Correction which also extended out across the country.
  • They were called Bridewells after the Bridewell in London
  • watchmen employed by the cities of London and Westminster - & urban parishes of Middlesex - to keep order on the streets at night
  • watchhouses as part of the community
  • after 7 days imprisonment for vagrancy - beggars removed to their parish of settlement
  • Apart from watchmen, constables and beggar catchers - there were Bow Street Runners
  • 1792 - Middlesex Justices Act - created 7 police offices in metropolis - each had 3 stipendiary magistrates and 6 constables -
  • end of 18thC. - London - substantial body of watchmen & system of detective policing
  • not till 1829 -passage of Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act - set up centralised police force of 3,000 men under control of Home Secretary

Advertising crimes

3. Trials


  • After apprehension for a crime - there was the trial
  • at the Old Bailey in London and at the provincial Assizes elsewhere
  • in early period - cases heard in batches of half a dozen before juries retired to consid. Verdicts or just huddled in a corner to decide - trials lasted c. 30 minutes per case -1833 - average trial took 8 ½ minutes
  • were very few lawyers at trials at the Old Bailey until 1730s
  • lawyers for defence rarely used till late 18thC
  • Assizes - took place in county towns - attended with considerable pomp


4. What were these prisons like?

  • but for most of the century were squalid and poorly organized
  • vagrants with wives, and children in tow mixed in with the prostitutes, thieves and the disorderly
  • privations - often lack of food and clothing
  • vagrants also meant to perform hard labour
  • relief avail. - food provision - rationed at levels well above starvation - sometimes a clothing allowance



  • see sharp increase in prison commitments for debt in late 18thC. & 19thC. - great strain on the prison system - were 4,446 in gaols in Eng. & Wales in 1763, but 16, 147 in 1787.
  • 3,814 in prison for deb in 1759, but 5,333 debtors in prison in 1769
  • big London debtors’ prisons - the King’s bench, the Fleet and the Marshalsea - went with whole series of privileges and amenities
  • were many bequests for charities for debtors - were consid. fit objects of charity - assoc. with misfortune - distanced from rigid views of culpability assoc. with ‘modern economic individualism
  • consumer culture within the prisons - markets run in there - delivery of meals, ale clothing letters, newspapers etc. - in masters’ prisons - -beer on tap - many rented furniture from local dealers - fostered ties of sociability bet. debtors and provisioners


5. Changing attitudes to crime at the time


  • 18thC. - most law enforcement agencies were locally controlled & staffed by amateurs
  • Parish policing worked according to perceived needs of the day
  • later in the 18thC. Appointment of increasing numbers of active justices
  • view that prosecutions were increasing esp. from the later 18thC.
  • 1805-15 - felony prosecutions rose by 70% - rose another 75% 1815-20
  • were 4,605 prosecutions in 1805 and 18,107 in 1830 - and increase of 300%
  • growing sense that crime was a problem to which those offended against should respond actively
  • difficult to disentangle criminal statistics - was crime increasing, or was it prosecutions that were increasing, along with the number of indictable and especially capital offences?
  • was the law being used to control and discipline recalcitrant workmen - was the criminal law being used in master and servant and petty embezzlement


5.Different historical positions on crime


  • Hay, Linebaugh and EP Thompson - social history of the law as an exposure of the cynical uses of the law in defence of privilege, property and profit
  • Against this view - Brewer and Styles in An Ungovernable People
  • view that an adversarial view of the relation between law and populace is one dimensional and crude
  • instead see law as a multiple use right - accessible to middling and poorer if not very poorest people


Capital Punishment


  • Capital punishment or hanging the subject of Vic Gatrell’s fine book, The Hanging Tree
  • Not only was there a large increase in prosecutions in the 18thC., but numbers condemned to capital punishment also rose rapidly.
  • in London 281 were hung 1701-50 - and five times as many as this 1751-1800
  • 35,000 were condemned to death 1770-1830, but most were reprieved & sent to prison hulks or transported to Australia - but still 7,000 were hanged
  • hanging in public lasted till 1837 - but not abolished until 1868 happened 8 times a year at Tyburn or Newgate & once or twice a year in most counties
  • how could people watch this - but they did - audiences of up to 100,000 claimed in London - 30-40,000 quite often & 3-7,000 common
  • there was a big shift in attitudes to capital punishment in the 1830s - the system suddenly collapsed with the Reform Act - 438 sentenced to death in 1837 - 56 in 1839
  • Foucault’s analysis - based on power and control
  • but Norbert Elias argument- ‘the civilizing process’
  • The drama of the public hanging
  • Was public hanging so much worse than private hanging?
  • Support
  • The cruel death
  • The scaffold ritual and state power
  • Debates over capital punishment and rise of the reformed prison