Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Crime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

"Tyburn tree" by Unknown
Retrieved from National Archives website.
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons

Why study crime?

Crime is well-documented for this period, and digital material such as the wonderful Old Bailey Online is now making a vast mass of material widely available. A study of property crime shows us the range of consumer goods in a society. Changing attitudes to crime provide an insight into wider social attitudes. 


There have been anxieties about crime in most periods of history. Sometimes the anxieties were exaggerated but this is not always the case. In the eighteenth century there was anxiety about crime caused by the prevalence of cheap gin. In London in the 1850s and 1860s there was a panic about garrotting. In the 1890s the word 'hooligan' came into use.

The growth of crime was the obverse of the consumer revolution, fuelled by the increase in the volume and range of goods in circulation. To eighteenth-century social commentators like the novelist, Henry Fielding, the key cause of crime was not poverty but ‘luxury’ - a word which symbolised the dangerous aspirations of those who sought material possessions and ‘diversions’ above their station. For example, the gin epidemic, made famous by Hogarth's print, 'Gin Lane' (1751) was seen as a cause not a consequence of poverty. 

'GinLane by William Hogarth
Licensed under Public domain 
via Wikimedia Commons 

One eighteenth-century strategy against crime, especially highway robbery, was the bill of exchange. But watches, silk handkerchiefs or even wigs could be stolen from individuals with relative ease from the swelling number of shops. The word shoplifting was first recorded in 1680. But property crime could not be prevented. It was the obverse of the consumer revolution.

The administration of the law

Since the Glorious Revolution, English law was regarded as superior to all other systems. Torture was not allowed, legal proceedings were public, trial by jury was common, habeas corpus acted as a safeguard for liberties, and the judges were not subject to political intimidation. 

Britain was a politically decentralised state and the law was administered locally. Prosecutions were brought by individuals, and the statistics show that the non-propertied as well as the propertied saw the law as the guarantor of their interests. Local law enforcement was in the hands of the Justices of the Peace, who heard cases and took it upon themselves to discharge suspects or to send them for trial. Parish constables, who were responsible for arrests, were either appointed or elected annually. 

There were two criminal courts of importance in the eighteenth century: the Quarter Sessions and the Assizes. Assizes were held by judges of the high courts who came into each county on circuit twice a year; Quarter Sessions by the Justices of the Peace of the county four times a year. Both dealt with countywide business at each session.

The extent of the powers of the Justices was vague until the Act of 1842. By this Act they could not try treason, murder, capital felony or a number of other offences regarded as especially serious. These became the responsibility of the Assize judges. The administration of the law was becoming more professional.

The offences dealt with by the courts can be divided into several broad categories:

  1. Capital offences: several forms of treason, including offences against the coinage and ‘petty treason’; the most common were felonies (which included all other homicides, infanticide, rape, robbery, burglary, larceny and arson). All these were triable at the assizes where they accounted for the largest part of the court’s criminal work.
  2. Lesser offences, dealt with by the courts of Quarter Sessions; these included assault, riot, petty larceny, fraud, embezzlement.
  3. ‘Social crimes’, not universally regarded as criminal and often carried out with the approval of the local community (smuggling, poaching, riot).

The Bow Street Runners

London presented a different pattern from the rest of the country. In an anonymous shifting population, the parish system was no longer effective as a unit of law and order. In the early eighteenth century felons were arrested by means of a general ‘hue and cry’ or through the action of professional thief-takers such as Jonathan Wild.

In 1748 the novelist Henry Fielding was appointed justice of the peace in Westminster. On December 9 1749, he moved into the large house in Bow Street, an area notorious for its atrocious living conditions and its bawdy houses. The ground floor of the house served as his courtroom.

Fielding set up a band of six constables, who were soon known as the Bow Street Runners. Their functions included serving writs, detective work, and arresting offenders. At first they worked for reward money, but they were later given one guinea a week plus a bonus for each successful prosecution. 

Sir John Fielding (1721-80)
By Nathaniel Hone
NPG Public Domain

When Henry Fielding died early in 1754 at the age of 47 his place was taken by his blind half-brother John who was principal magistrate for Westminster from 1754 to 1780 and pursued criminals with a religious zeal. His 'runners' would pursue felons across the country and became widely feared, albeit they may have been little better than those they pursued. Fielding never tired of talking up the merits of his runners and was a tireless propagandist for the idea of a national police force, but his efforts were met with the familiar concerns about civil liberties and financial costs of such a scheme. He was knighted for his efforts in 1761.

In 1792 an Act of Parliament (the Middlesex Justices Act) established seven more offices on the Bow Street model and enabled the Bow Street office to be called on by other parts of the nation, laying the basis for the future Scotland Yard.


Creative writers were fascinated by crime. The great fictional criminals of the eighteenth century are Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders and Macheath, the anti-hero of The Beggars’ Opera (1728). This was probably  the most popular play of the 18th century. 
"Jack Sheppard" by Sir James Thornhill -
National Portrait Gallery.
Licensed under Public domain
in the United States via Wikipedia

In 1724 the thief and escapee, Jack Sheppard, was hanged. He is believed to have been the model for Macheath. After his second escape from Newgate and his subsequent recapture, many ballads were published about him. He received many distinguished visitors while in prison and his portrait was painted by Sir James Thornhill. He was used as a mouthpiece to denounce the hypocrisy of society. This glorification of the highwayman is especially associated with the corruption of the Walpole era.

Sheppard was captured by the thief-taker, Jonathan Wild. Wild was by origin a buckle-maker from Wolverhampton. He then became a pimp, a brothel-keeper and finally a receiver of stolen goods. Posing as a ‘thief-taker’ he set up an ‘Office for the Recovery of Lost and Stolen Property'. He apprehended wanted felons with a posse of assistants for the reward. However, the felons he passed on to trial were his victims, set up by him. In 1725 one of his own gang, Blueskin Blake, whom he had betrayed, attempted to cut his throat. Wild was convicted of taking a £10 reward for the return of some lace whose theft he had arranged, and hanged.

Dick Turpin (1705?-1739) was convicted at York for horse-stealing and hanged in 1739. He became a popular hero after Harrison Ainsworth’s romance Rookwood (1834)

The penal code

The 18th century penal code is notorious for the high number of capital statutes. In 1688 there were about 50, by 1800, 200. A statute of 1698 made the theft of goods worth more than 5/- a capital offence. The Black Act of 1723 created 50 capital offences. 

Most of the Acts were specific: laws against damaging Fulham Bridge (1725), Westminster Bridge (1736) and forging an entry in the North Riding Land Register (1735). But people were usually executed for very traditional offences - forgery, sheep-stealing, theft from shops and warehouses. In fact there were probably fewer executions in the eighteenth century than the seventeenth. One reason for the huge number of capital offences lay in the conceptual poverty of English law. There was no overall criminal code, like those found on the Continent, and no general definitions of offences so separate statues were required for separate crimes.


Trials lasted half an hour on average and the same jurors would hear many causes. But from about 1700 it became the practice to take a verdict at the end of each trial instead of requiring jurors to hold several cases in their heads at once. Juries acquitted over a third of all prisoners.

By the time of George I the Crown began to engage lawyers regularly in certain kinds of case. From the 1730s defence council was also increasingly employed though this was technically forbidden in cases of felony. By 1800 counsel was commonly retained.

Non-capital punishments

Whipping: Corporal punishment was usually preferred to imprisonment. The offence that most often resulted in corporal punishment was petty larceny, the theft of goods worth less than a shilling, and the usual punishment was a whipping. The whipping of prisoners was carried out both in private (in a jail or house of correction) by the jailor or in public by the common hangman. The offence that most often resulted in corporal punishment was petty larceny, the theft of goods worth less than a shilling. Parishes were supposed to provide ‘whipping posts’ at which the prisoner would be tied by the hands, but the most common method of public flogging was ‘at the cart’s tail’ ‘until his back be bloody’. 

The pillory was one of the most feared punishments. The experience of a criminal condemned to stand there was determined entirely by the crowd that came to watch. They might applaud the convicted person or pelt them with dirt and stones. Men who had committed sexual crimes or crimes against children could even be killed. Women were occasionally pilloried for keeping bawdy houses.

The pillory at Charing Cross, 1808
Public Domain

Houses of correction had first been established in the reign of Elizabeth, specifically to punish the able-bodied poor who refused to work. In the 18th century they grew in number. The majority of the inmates continued to be the vagrant and disreputable poor, prostitutes and street urchins, those who refused to work, servants and apprentices who disobeyed their masters, and unmarried mothers.


This was a drastic punishment seen as killing two birds with one stone: getting rid of a criminal and importing a cheap (and expendable) labour into the colonies. In 1718 and 1719 Acts were passed which extended the use of transportation and placed the administrative arrangements to effect the sentence on the county or borough authorities concerned, whether the sentences were passed at Assizes or Quarter Sessions. Transportation was to be for seven years for offences without benefit of clergy and for fourteen years for those condemned to death and pardoned on condition of transportation. In the 50 years following the Acts some 50,000 convicts were transported to the American colonies. This rapidly became the preferred penalty for property offences. 

With the revolt of the American colonies the government resorted by an Act of Parliament of 1776 to holding would-be transportees in the ‘hulks’, old moored ships. But these could have held only about 60 per cent of those under sentence of transportation, which left several thousand kept in gaols. From 1787 transportation was resumed – but to Australia (and with the Penal Servitude Act of 1857). The most famous transportee in literature is Magwich in Dickens' Great Expectations.


Before the end of the 18th century prisons were primarily places of safe custody for those awaiting trial, or awaiting punishment in the form of execution of whipping, or in custody until fines, fees or debts were paid or sureties found. Prisons were run by the gaolers as a commercial enterprise, prisoners paying fees to the gaoler and also paying for their board and lodging if they could afford to. Gaolers made additional money selling liquor to their prisoners. But though local prisons were run for profit, they were provided for by the local authorities. In county gaols the prisoners were the sheriff’s responsibility and he appointed the gaoler. County justices were empowered to levy rates to give poor prisoners a small daily allowance of bread and beer. 

With the loss of the colonies, imprisonment became more popular. From the 1770s and 1780s it became the key sentencing option. The 1770s saw experiments with solitary confinement. Attitudes to punishment were changing.

Capital punishment

By the end of the century two hundred people a year were executed in England and Wales alone, though the number actually sentenced to death was far higher. Between 1770 and 1830 7000 men women and children were executed out of 35,000 sentenced. But the figures varied wildly from year to year.

Many judges sought strenuously to use mediation and negotiation and did not automatically reach for the most severe punishment and often sought a royal pardon for the condemned person. The number pardoned increased from around 50-60 per cent in the early to mid-eighteenth century to c. 90 per cent in the early nineteenth. Pardon was an assertion of the terrifying majesty of the law, but it was also a genuine attempt to take individual circumstances into account, such as the condemned person’s good record. Recent evidence suggests that judges weighed up the evidence very conscientiously.

Only a small proportion of those executed were murderers: in London and Middlesex they comprised only 10 per cent of those executed between 1749 and 1771. Of the rest, forty-three had been convicted of burglary and thirty-one of highway robbery. 

Tyburn tree

Until the mid-nineteenth century executions and other punishments were public. All the participants at executions - the judge with his black cap, the condemned, the attendant clergyman, the executioner, and the spectators - were part of a theatrical spectacle in which they had assigned roles. There was a flourishing ‘confession’ literature.

In London the main place of execution was Tyburn in the parish of Marylebone.  The notorious 'Tyburn Tree’ was erected near the modern Marble Arch in 1571. It was a novel form of gallows, consisting of a horizontal wooden triangle supported by three legs (an arrangement known as a 'three-legged mare' or 'three-legged stool'). Several felons could thus be hanged at once. 

William Hogarth, 'The Idle Apprentice Hanged at Tyburn' (1747)
Public Domain

In 1783 the Newgate Act ended the procession to Tyburn. As fashionable estates developed north of Oxford Street and close to the Edgware Road local landowners petitioned for the removal of the gallows and the newly rebuilt Newgate prison was decided on as the new venue. The Newgate gallows was built with a ‘drop’ though this does not seem to have shortened the process. 

"Old Newgate".
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons - 


The chief prison in London was Newgate, which remained in use from 1108 to 1902.  Work on the rebuilding of Newgate began in 1770 the designs of George Dance, but the incomplete building was burned down in the Gordon Riots of 1780. The new prison was finally completed two years later. The whole philosophy of the new design was to proclaim the majesty of the law and to inspire terror in the prisoners. The heart of the new building was a central courtyard. The prison was divided into two sections: a ‘Common’ area for poor prisoners and a ‘State area’ for those able to afford more comfortable accommodation. Each section was further sub-divided to accommodate felons and debtors. 

In November 1849 Maria Manning was executed at Newgate, along with her husband, for the murder of her lover, Patrick O’Connor. This was the first time since 1700 that a husband and wife had been executed together and the case aroused huge interest. Dickens attended, and wrote a vivid (and somewhat voyeuristic) account in a letter to The Times

Maria Manning, the Bermondsey murderess
Public Domain
The last person to be publicly executed was the Fenian Michael Barratthanged outside Newgate for his part in the Clerkenwell explosion that killed twelve bystanders. After this executions took place inside the prison. Punishment was no longer seen as a public spectacle and Dickens was not alone in arguing that it was degrading to the spectators to witness a public execution.

The ending of public executions and the redesign of Newgate are testimonies to a new philosophy of punishment. It was not longer to be a public theatre but a private act. The purpose of prison was no longer mainly to house debtors and those awaiting trial, but a place of austerity and reflection where (it was hoped) those sentenced by the courts would come to see the evil of their ways.

Prison reform

In 1767 an English translation popularised the pleas of the Italian jurist, Cesare Beccaria (1738-94) for consistent, predictable and non-retributive punishment. From the 1770s, John Howard from exposed the dirt and disease in his reports on the 'State of the Prisons'.  The prison reformer Elizabeth Fry worked among the female prisoners and their children at Newgate and presented evidence to Parliament about the appalling conditions in which they were housed. In 1858 the interior was rebuilt with individual cells.

'Mrs Fry reading to the inhabitants of Newgate'
Public Domain

This system was already in operation in Pentonville, opened in 1842. It was designed by Captain Joshua Jebb of the Royal Engineers, who subsequently became Surveyor-General of Prisons. The inmates were kept in solitary cells and wore a mask when they were moved round the building so that anonymity was preserved. 

These changes represented a new ideology of punishment, not necessarily more humane than the older one. The traditional forms of punishment were part of a theatrical performance in which the body was attacked. The new were private and aimed at changing the criminal from within. Prison was to be a time for reflection and though brutal corporal punishments continued to be inflicted in the prisons the new emphasis was on the prisoner’s inner nature. He was to be reformed through labour and religious instruction. The state was now actively involved in the administration of justice, which had become a uniformly administered national system.

The Metropolitan Police 

In 1823 the new Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel dramatically reduced the number of capital statutes which had lingered on the statute book. This was  not because the he was soft-hearted but because he believed that the statutes were ineffectual. The number of executions did not diminish during his period of office and  he was criticised for dictating too much to magistrates and lessening their freedom of manoeuvre. 

As Home Secretary, he was a rationaliser rather than a humanitarian. He represented a new approach to crime that focussed on prevention as opposed to the detection of criminals. New horse and foot patrols were introduced both at night and during the day, with the men involved frequently referred to as ‘police’ (a continental term that was controversial because of its association with repressive regimes in Europe). 

Efforts to rationalise and further extend London's system of policing culminated with the passage in 1829 of Peel's Metropolitan Police ActThe Act set up a police force of 3,000 men under the control of the Home Secretary, with responsibility for policing the entire metropolitan area, except the City of London. It was expected that the frequency of their patrols would significantly reduce the opportunities to commit crime. It followed the policy begun by the earlier Bow Street Runners, and in many respects the only really novel aspect of the Metropolitan Police was its centralised control by the Home Secretary.

Uniformed and carrying only wooden batons, the new ‘Bobbies’ (referring to Robert Peel’s Christian name, and the most polite of the many nicknames the officers received) patrolled the streets on prescribed beats. 

A 'Peeler' of the 1850s
Public Domain

The advent of the Metropolitan Police was not as momentous a development as has sometimes been claimed. In some of the wealthier parishes the number of police officers patrolling the streets immediately after the Act was lower than the number of watchman previously patrolling those same streets. Even after the creation of the Metropolitan Police the role of the individual victim remained central in identifying offenders to the authorities and prosecuting them. It was only very gradually that the police assumed full responsibility for prosecuting offenders.

The advent of the detective

The police came to assume responsibility for the prosecution of offenders. The police came to assume responsibility for the prosecution of offenders. In 1842 a new detective department
became the first centralised detective force in England. A new genre of novels began to focus on crime and detection, with characters such as Sergeant Bucket in Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone Sensational crimes such as the Road Hill House murder of 1860 were now investigated by professionals. 


  1. By the beginning of the nineteenth century attitudes to crime and punishment were changing.
  2. Prisons were replacing the older public and more violent forms of punishment. The emphasis now was on bringing about a change of heart. 
  3. The creation of the Metropolitan Police was a continuation of earlier reforms but it was a big step in the direction of centralisation. 
  4. By the middle of the nineteenth century crime was investigated by professional detectives.

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