First off, I love any type of crime novel/movie/T.V. show. There is something about the guilty and disturbed that seems to interest people. I am not alone in this obsession. It’s obvious that Dickens thrives on exposing judicial injustices. In almost every novel, Dickens reveals the flaws of the powerful elite. After finishing A Tale of Two Cities, I was flabbergasted at the deplorable actions by the government. The guillotine/gallows seemed to be the only consequence for any action and the death toll never stopped rising. As I delved into Bleak House, I saw where Dickens continued writing about the law and penalties. This research page has stemmed from my curiosity. What was London’s judicial system like during the Victorian Era? What were the punishments for certain crimes? How often was the death penalty enforced? These are all questions that I intend to address and explore. I am looking forward to the journey of research!


In current times, petty crimes are constantly happening all around us. With every new day, it seems that something more heinous is flooding our news stations. Rape, murder, pedophilia, assault, and robbery are things that are happening more and more. It’s sad to not be surprised by an Amber Alert anymore. As I think of all the disgusting things going on around me, I thought about Dickens. What was going on during his time? Upon diving into this matter further, it seems it will be hard to pinpoint any statistics for crime. However, I do have a rough estimate to give you an idea. In 1800, around 5000 crimes were reported annually. By 1830, over 20,000 crimes were being committed annually (  Until the 1930’s, Metropolitan Police in England rarely reported robbery or theft. These police officers simply considered these items “lost.” It was often times possible for the person reporting theft to be considered forgetful or scatter-brained (Emsley). Also, since the poor people were often mistreated by the police, they had little faith in the police. Because of that, the “lower-class” citizens rarely reported any crime committed to them. These people were too scared of what the police might do or say (Emsley). During the early 19th Century, economic hardships faced many residents. To account for the loss in income, people began committing petty theft to fulfill their needs. Since these thefts were rarely taken seriously, an outbreak occurred. Along with the theft, increasing violence began accompanying the crime. By the mid 1800’s, Parliament was fed-up with all of the nonsense. New police forces were established and annual inspections began taking place. The fear of government and the thought that an inspection could take place seemed to instill fear into the residents. So, petty theft and violence began to temporarily decrease (Emsley). This brief decrease in crime was soon replaced by new offenses. “Garrotting” soon started happening in the streets. Garrotting is similar to what we would consider being mugged. It is when you are walking somewhere and are violently robbed. This had been happening for quite some time, but was under the radar. This changed when a member of Parliament was attacked. The newspapers smelled a story and blew it way out of proportion. Fear swept the streets of England of one minor incident (Emsley). With time, this fear subsided, but petty crimes continued to thrive.

Who Did What?

Most of the criminal offenders were male. Almost all petty thefts and violent crimes were committed solely by a man. Though, it is important to note that domestic violence was not considered a crime. A man was supposed to control, watch over, and protect the woman. Sometimes a good slap across the face did the trick. So, there is no telling how many women were severely abused by the men in their life. However, women had their share of transgressions as well. Prostitution, soliciting, and drunkenness were the most common offenses of women. These crimes were considered “victimless” and therefore rarely had a consequence (Emsley). Children were a whole different story. Unfortunately, these children mocked their parent’s behaviors. “Pick-pocketing” was way too common for children under the age of 16. Since economic trials strapped parents, children were not getting everything they desired. The obvious thing to do is steal from others. Dickens spoke out about this matter in Oliver Twist. Does “Please Sir, I want some more…” sound familiar? Crime got so bad with these juveniles that Parliament had to take immediate action. They created the “Committee for Investigating the Alarming Increase in Juvenile Crime in the Metropolis.” Even with all of the attempts that Parliament made to alleviate social transgressions, crime continued to increase ( Since crime could not be stopped, only one question remained – How to punish the guilty.

Trial by Jury?

I am not saying our court system today is perfect. I am well aware of the kinks that ruin so many lives. However, at least we have the opportunity to have an attorney and the right to have a trial by jury. This was definitely not always to case in the Victorian era. When accused of a crime, one could be sent to a multitude of different courtrooms. (All of the information below is from the source I really encourage anyone who in interested in this stuff to check out this website! They have SO much great stuff, it is unbelievable!)

  • Courts of Petty Sessions: The name of this court pretty much speaks for itself. People, who were sent to this court, usually was accused of vagrancy, poaching, or drunkenness. Originally, these cases were tried in the Quarter Sessions, but became way too frequent, so this court system was created. Unfortunately, most of these “trials” were never seen in a courtroom. Whoever the judge for the case was tried the defendant in his home. YIKES! No jury, no peers, no fairness. While most of these crimes did not require severe punishment, it still seems unfair.
  • Quarter Sessions: These court sessions were only seen four times a year, in front of at least two magistrates. These sessions could run on for days, depending on the amount of cases. More serious crimes were tried in this court system
  • Assize Courts: These court sessions were tried by a judge and a jury. The judges for this system traveled about to different circuits twice a year. The most serious crimes were tried in this manner. Each judge would travel to a circuit twice a year for the cases in that area.
  • King/Queen ‘s Bench: You better hope you never end up here! Any case that was considered a detriment to the “crown” was tried in this way. People would appear before the King or Queen for judgement. Also, many cases that were controversial showed up in this type of courtroom. If a case was deemed too controversial to be judged without bias, it was seen before the highest of authority – The King or Queen.

It is also important to note how the court cases were handled. Usually, the victim of a crime automatically became the prosecutor. The accused assailant became the defendant. This person must prove their innocence with no assistance ( Obviously, things did not usually turn out great for the accused criminals.

Crime and Mostly Punishment

When thinking of our judicial system today, people can often become frustrated. I know most of the time I am. With the influx of media outlets, people are constantly aware of the judicial punishments for others. Take the Casey Anthony case for instance. The day that she was acquitted infuriated Americans. Each and every media outlet provided thoughts, opinions, and concerns concerning her. Besides the influx of media, it seems our judicial system can be a little skewed at times. We see murderers and rapists serve less time that embezzlers and scam artists. It can be disheartening at times. After reading up on the crime and punishment of the Victorians, I see a lot of similarities. It is ironic that committing a heinous crime was actually better for you than committing a more minor offense. (Obviously, this is not the case is every matter; It is just a general observation from my research) When minor crimes were committed, people were served with a short-term jail sentence. However, this short-term jail sentence was accompanied by extreme, hard, labor. Since the work was so severe, many inmates did not make it out. Inmates began dying because of malnutrition, exhaustion, dehydration, and so forth. Here is the ironic thing – If you were convicted of a serious crime and assigned a life sentence, you were required to fulfill it. Therefore, hard labor was not a part of these inmates day-to-day life. Since the labor could cause death, officials did not want to risk their inmates not serving out the whole sentence (  It is important to note that jail was a luxury. Execution was a prime-time method of punishing criminals. Don’t worry, we will get there soon!

Prison Systems

I’ll be the first to admit that I am sucker for T.V. shows that give an inside look into prison systems. Often times, I find myself thinking they have it a little too easy. Serial murderers are shown kicked back in their cell watching television. TELEVISION? I’m sorry, but if you strangled your kids in the bathtub; you don’t deserve to be able to keep up with your daily soap operas. If I had lived in the Victorian era, I definitely would not have felt this way. Below, I am going to layout some of the most common prisons during the Victorian crime waves. All information on the prison system is  from the source : The link to the actual prison page is on my Works Cited and I really recommend looking at it! It has far more information on each and every prison system, than I will get to include on here. It’s AWESOME!

  • Lets start off with the best, shall we? Tothill Fields Prison: The majority of inmates here were women and children. Only boys under 17 years old could be sentenced here. This place was a cake walk compared to the other prisons. It also was shut down after only 50 years. (50 years is a very short time for a prison to be open. The money/finances it takes to create one is massive) While no whippings or severe labor occurred at Tothill, one very weird rule was put into place. SILENCE! No one could talk to one another. If you were caught speaking to anyone (besides someone of authority with permission), your food was withheld from you for a set amount of time.

  • Newgate Prison: This is one of those places you read about in science-fiction novels. What had happened was…..It got bombed, then rebuilt, then a riot broke out. Yikes, yikes, yikes! Newgate was rebuilt in 1780. This place was the last stop for all prisoners sentenced to execution. Let me tell you, that was a lot! (I promise, we are getting there!) Also, wealthy prisoners could pay for the “comfortable” quarters of this prison. If they wanted, they could even pay someone to serve their sentence. Obviously, this place was very politically driven.

  • Coldbath Hills Prison: Coldbath was a prison for the “extras.” With the overflow of inmates coming into Newgate Prison, many had to be transferred to Coldbath. During the day, all men would have to work. But, it’s not exactly what you would think. Here is one example of what a prisoner’s day might look like : A inmate could be sentenced to winding a crank all day. This would mean eight solid hours of winding something that did nothing. There was no machine or industrial purpose connected with the crank; it was meant to drive you insane.

  •  The overflow: During this time period, prison systems created cells to only hold one person. This usually would drive the person mentally insane, due to isolation. Because of this, many prisoners were left without a cell. It got so bad that ships started being built with jail cells and the criminals would be sentenced to a term at sea. After much financing, The National Penitentiary was built in 1821.

Execution – British Style

It is my belief that currently the death penalty is more of a scare tactic, than an actual punishment. Obviously, we have some states who take execution more seriously (Shout out Texas!).  It seems that every time a criminal gets placed on death row, they end up dying their – waiting to be executed. Or, the prisoner smartly chooses to go through the appeal process, which takes years upon years. This is quite lucky for those in America, who are supposed to be killed by the government. However in the Victorian Era, prisoners were not so lucky. If you were told that the death penalty was coming, YOU BEST BELIEVE IT! In fact, execution was the main form of punishment for all severe crimes. The usually method was hanging. A group would normally be assembled (a group of people sentenced to execution) and paraded in front of the whole town. The idea was to shame, embarrass, and humiliate the prisoners. One by one, each prisoner would be hanged in front of the crowd and then cut down, so the next one could lose his life ( Even after their bodies were hauled off, the crown would stick around to see the death notices be posted. Talk about extra-curricular activities. Between the years of 1735-1964, over 10,000 civilians were executed in England and Wales alone. Below is a chart that shows who was executed, when they were executed, and where they were executed (





Northern     Ireland

Channel Islands & Isle of Man












1735 -1799





1800 –   1899









1900 –   1964











The Gallows

With all of the hanging going on, there has got to be somewhere to ring their necks.I cringe at the thought of someone putting a rope around my neck and making me jump. The closest I have come to even thinking about this type of punishment is watching the movie “Changeling.” Obviously, that wasn’t real. So, what is? Early hangings were not a neat and clean process. Things progressed and hanging a man/woman became a more advanced and technical. Below, I am going to list out the various devices used to hang criminals and convicts. All information is gathered from (I told you guys this website had some great information!)

  • Early Hangings: Originally, the contraption used for hangings consisted of two trees close together. Basically, find two trees real close together and put a bar between them! A person would be hauled up by a hangman or thrown off of a ladder.
  • The “Triple Three”: Basically, the “Triple Three” was created to hang more people at a time. While the trees were working, only one person could be hung at a time. Not  to mention, it took time to transition between criminals. Therefore, this was created. The names speaks for itself. There are three sides. On each side, three people could be hanged.

  • The “New Drop” Gallows: These Gallows were an extension of the “Triple Three.” These gallows could execute nine people at once. The only difference is the layout of the gallows itself. All 9 criminals were hanged in a row, rather than a tripod type arena.

    Overall, these are the three main types of gallows used. Different variations of each one were created, but not used as frequently as the above three.

Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868: After this act was passed, all executions had to take place within the walls of county prisons. The audience spectacle was no longer an issue.

Works Cited

“History of British Judicial Hanging.” Capital Punishment U. Web. 23 Mar. 2012.<>.

“Crime and Punishment in Victorian times.” The Victorian Penal System in London. Web. 22 Mar. 2012. <>.

“Courts of Justice – Victorian Crime and Punishment from E2BN.” Victorian Crime and Punishment from E2BN. East of England Broadband Network. Web. 22 Mar. 2012. <>.

Emsley, Clive. “Crime and Victorians.” BBC News. BBC, 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 29 Feb. 2012. <>.

“Victorian Children in Trouble with the Law.” The National Archives. Web. 29 Feb. 2012. <>.


8 responses »

  1. enjoyed reading this. I am researching one of the executions which took place at Newgate in 1820 and found your blog by chance. Hadn’t come across the fact wealthy prisoners could pay for the comfortable quarters If they wanted and could pay someone to serve their sentence. Do you have any more background on this practice and how much this sort of thing might cost ?

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