Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Capital Punishment

CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of sexual violence, death, suicide.

The death penalty in Britain was finally abolished in 1998 (though the last execution took place in 1965), but its ethical value had been long debated before this point. In this seminar we will discuss 19th century views on capital punishment, its applications, and moves to reform or abolish this sentence altogether.

Seminar prep questions:

  • What were the main changes in capital punishment in the long nineteenth century? What motivated the reforms?
  • Why did public executions end?
  • Who campaigned against the death penalty and why?
  • How was capital punishment reported and represented?

Primary reading:

Essential secondary reading:

  • J Rowbotham, ‘Execution as Punishment in England: 1750-2000’ in A Kilday and D Nash (eds.) Histories of Crime: Britain 1600-2000
  • James Gregory, '"The broken stave at the top of the ladder of England's Civilisation: Representing the ending of public execution in 1868', in Execution Culture in Nineteenth Century Britain (2020).

Further reading:



  • Zoe Dyndor, 'Death recorded: Capital Punishment and the Press in Northampton', Midland History, 2008
  • Stephen Gambrel, "If He Was to be Heard, He Had to be Killed" : Language from the Old Bailey to the Gallows', in Mark Allen and Daniel Messara, The Captivity Narrative
  • D. Garland, Punishment and Welfare: A History of Penal Strategies
  • V A C Gatrell, The Hanging Tree
  • James Gregory, Victorians Against the Gallows: Capital Punishment and the Abolitionist Movement in Nineteenth Century Britain (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012)
  • Patrick Low, Helen Rutherford, and Clare Sandford-Couch (Eds.), Execution Culture in Nineteenth-Century Britain: From Public Spectacle to Hidden Ritual (London: Routledge, 2021)
  • R. McGowen, ‘ A Powerful Sympathy: Terror, the Prison and Humanitarian Reform in Nineteenth-Century England’, Journal of British Studies, 25 (1986), pp. 312-34
  • R. McGowen, ‘Civilising Punishment: The End of the Public Execution in England’, Journal of British Studies, 33 (1994), pp. 257-82
  • Gerard Oram, '"The administration of discipline by the English is very rigid": British Military Law and the Death Penalty (1868-1918)', Crime, History, and Societies (2001) pp. 93-110.
  • G. Rose, The Struggle for Penal Reform: the Howard League and its Predecessors
  • Lizzie Seal, 'Violet Van Der Elst’s Use of Spectacle and Militancy in her Campaign Against the Death Penalty in England', Law, Crime and History, 2013
  • Greg T. Smith, '"I could hang anything you bring before me": England's willing executioners in 1883', in Penal Practice and Culture, 1500-1900 ed. by Simon Devereaux and Paul Griffiths (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

  • Pieter Spierenburg, Violence and punishment : civilizing the body through time (Chapter on capital punishment)E Tuttle, Crusade Against Capital Punishment in Britain

  • John Walliss, 'Representations of Justice Executed at Norwich Castle: A Comparative Analysis of Execution Reports in The Norfolk Chronicle and Bury and Norwich Post, 1805-1867', Law, Crime and History, 2013