Crime and Punishment of the victorian age

Just Before the Victorian Era

Jack the ripper
Just Before the Victorian Era
When ideas change hands
Gallery & quick facts


Jack Sheppard
Apprentices were effectively enslaved to their masters for many years. They received only their keep, and were locked up at night and compelled to live by draconian rules. Apprentice boys had a reputation for being hooligans because they so often resorted to theft and other crimes.
Between 1700 and 1725, nearly half of all those hanged at Tyburn were apprentice boys. One of them was Jack Sheppard (1702-24), an apprentice carpenter who, as a thief, made more money in a month than a qualified carpenter made in a year. By the time he was executed, he had become a hero, idolized for his daring escapes from prison.

Jack Sheppard's crimes were all petty: stealing two silver spoons, a roll of cloth, 7 in cash. But he was poor and associated with prostitutes and other thieves, so when he was caught, he didn't stand a chance: he was sentenced to hang. His only options were to wait out his time in goal or escape, which he did, only to repeat the procedure, with increasing audacity, four times.
In contrast, crimes committed by the rich, such as fraud and embezzlement, rarely ended in such harsh sentences. A year after Jack had been repeatedly locked up, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Macclesfield, was found guilty of corruption. He was fined 30,000, which the king helped him to pay, and spent a mere six weeks in the Tower.

When Jack was finally hanged on 16 November 1724, 200,000 people came to watch the event, not to gloat but in the hope that their hero would escape at the last minute.
People who were put in the pillory with the intention of humiliating and making an example of them were often cheered by the crowd instead. In 1764, the London Evening Post reported on three old men pilloried for perjury: 'Their tears and grey hairs drew compassion from the people, and instead of being pelted, money was collected for them.'
This did not enhance the authority of the law or serve the interests of the property owners.

The 'privatized' system
In the 'privatized' system, individuals were rewarded for arresting criminals. Parish officers, for example, received 5 shillings (25p) for each vagrant collared. Citizens, encouraged to become vigilante 'thief-takers', could win big rewards, such as 40 for turning in a highwayman.
At the end of the 18th century, London had a population of nearly a million but only 2,000 watchmen – the lowest rank of law-keepers, who were often old and decrepit – and 1,000 officers, the next rank up. They couldn't begin to deal with the large numbers of people who were turning to crime, let alone address the reasons why these individuals were desperate enough to resort to pick pocketing, prostitution or rioting against rising food prices.
Indeed, even some of the supposed law enforcers were part of the criminal underworld. A notorious example was 'thief-taker general' Jonathan Wild (1682-1725), a professional bounty hunter and the man who caught Jack Sheppard. As well as the large amounts of money he made by betraying his partners in crime for a fee, wild operated an extremely lucrative 'lost property' agency that sold back to their owners goods whose thefts he had planned.

No way out
In 18th-century England, those with money flaunted it. But they lived in fear that those without money would steal it – and there were plenty of people who had no other way of surviving. When work was in short supply or a person was unemployable – because they were old, sick or pregnant and unmarried – there was nowhere they could go for help.

Although their own parish was supposed to support them, in many cases the authorities would drive them out rather than accept that responsibility. But if they left their parish, they could only receive poor relief if they went into the workhouse. There, conditions were so harsh that children would die within weeks. In the cities of England at this time, most prostitutes were not volunteers but abandoned girls who went on to the streets when they had no other way of earning money.

Capital punishments
Large numbers of people who had migrated to the cities were now cut off from the support of their families and communities, so when there was no work, they had no source of income. Many of them resorted to crime simply in order to survive. And as crime spiraled, property owners started to panic, and judicial penalties were made harsher until they were out of all proportion to the offences they were supposed to punish.
In 1689, for example, there were 50 crimes that could incur the death penalty. The Waltham Black Act of 1723 created 50 new capital offences to do with poaching and the violation of other game laws. By 1810, there were a total of 222 capital offences in England (Scotland had only 16). You could now be hanged for, among many other things, pick pocketing more than 1 shilling (5p), cutting hop binds and sending threatening letters.
However, this vicious criminal code didn't deter criminals because most of those who were breaking the law only did so when they had no alternative.

Prison life

Georgian prisons were not expected to reform criminals but were simply holding pens. Newgate was the most notorious. Unbelievably crowded and never cleaned, many prisoners died before they could be tried. The Old Bailey court was originally built with only three walls. The proceedings were carried on under the roof while the prisoners were held outside so they didn't infect everyone else with the typhus that was rife in the gaols.
But prison life was not completely cut off from the world. The warders made good money letting visitors in and even running alehouses within the gaol. Prostitutes could ply their trade from prison. Men and women shared cells, and often carried on buying and selling from inside. In the early 18th century, prisoners even kept farm animals with them – though pigs were banned from Newgate after 1714.

In the start of the Victorian era things began to change. Queen Victoria had ideals that did not quite fit the world so she changed it. She wanted equality and she wanted to keep kids off the workforce and out of prision.

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