Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library


Crime and Punishment in 18th & 19th Century England

It was in the eighteenth century that some of the more gruesome punishments inflicted upon the condemned went out of favour. For instance, those caught in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 were the last to be decapitated, disembowelled and have their spiked heads displayed on Temple Bar. By the 1770s 'pressing with weights' had been abolished, as had branding, and the burning of the bodies of women hanged for being traitors.

However, between 1770 and 1830 some 35,000 people were condemned to death in England and Wales. Most were reprieved and either sent to the hulks or transported, but about 7,000 were publicly hanged. As there was no attempt to calculate weights or drops, few died cleanly; instead men, women and children as young as fourteen took anything up to twenty minutes to choke to death in front of large and excited crowds.

This was the state of affairs in England until the 1830s when the Whigs came to power with their reformist agenda. The Reform Act of 1832 also introduced many more middle class, progressive MPs to Parliament and many capital statutes were repealed. Thus in 1837, only eight people were hanged, in contrast to the 1780s where it was a common sight to see up to twenty hanged people at a time dangling outside Newgate prison. Public hanging ceased in 1868 and thereafter took place only inside prisons until 1964 when capital punishment was abolished.



Jeremy Bentham's design for a 'panopticon' style prison.

Prisons and Imprisonment

As executions declined in number, prisons became an increasingly important part of English penal practice from the mid nineteenth century. Emphasis was placed upon reforming the soul and reshaping the personality, rather than punishing the body. Various styles and designs of prisons and prison systems evolved in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to manage prisoners.

It was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the utilitarian philosopher, who designed a 'panopticon' style of prison in order to overcome the chaos of older prisons such as Newgate. The architecture of a panopticon was designed to enable one way viewing of prisoners at all times, strict divisions and partitions and incessant industry. A true panopticon prison was never built, although Pentonville has some of the characteristics of such a prison.

By the early nineteenth century there were two main systems of imprisonment, the collective / silent system and the solitary / separate system. The mark system, where prisoners had some control over their imprisonment through the earning or loss of marks for their behaviour, was only ever really used at Norfolk Island. The collective system forced prisoners to labour together silently, whereas the solitary imposed strict segregation on prisoners at all times. By the 1830s, the solitary system, as used in prisons such as Pentonville, had come to dominate.

The Cato Street Conspiracy

In 1820 a plot was hatched to assassinate the entire British Cabinet and overthrow the government. About 27 men were involved in the Cato Street conspiracy, one of whom was a government spy who acted as an agent provocateur and ensured that the government knew of the plan, at all times, in all its stages.

The conspirators were apprehended before they could take any action and eleven were tried for high treason and sentenced to death. Some had their sentences commuted to transportation for life, but Arthur Thistlewood, John Brunt, William Davidson, James Ings and Richard Tidd were hanged at Newgate on
1 May 1820 before a crowd of approximately 100,000 people. By all accounts they went to their deaths bravely and died relatively quickly; Brunt only kicked in agony for five minutes before the hangman pulled on his legs to hasten his death.

Theirs was to be the last 'old fashioned' execution for treason, where the condemned were hanged publicly then decapitated (only thirty years earlier they would also have been eviscerated). This form of punishment was in itself a dilution of the original 'hanging, drawing and quartering' of traitors. Originally the condemned were dragged across the earth to their place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until dead, after which their heads were severed from their bodies which were then quartered.

The Special Collection, Deakin University Library, is fortunate to contain a number of items which illustrate aspects of the Cato Street Conspiracy and some of the changes which took place in penal law and prisons during the late 18th and early 19th century.


Foucault, M. Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison, Penguin, London, 1977.
Gatrell, V.A.C. The Hanging Tree: execution and the English people 1770-1868, Oxford University Press, 1994.
McGowen, Randall ''The Body and Punishment in Eighteenth-Century England'' in Journal of Modern History, vol. 59, Dec. 1987, pp. 651-679.
McGowen, Randall ''Civilizing Punishment: the end of public execution in England'' in Journal of British Studies, vol. 33, July 1994, pp. 257-282.
McGowen, Randall ''A Powerful Sympathy: terror, the prison, and humanitarian reform in early nineteenth-century Britain'' in Journal of British Studies, vol. 25, July 1986, pp. 312-334.
Stanhope, John The Cato Street Conspiracy, Jonathan Cape, London, 1962.

Checklist of items on display:

The principles of punishment : on which the Mark System of prison discipline is advocated, respectfully addressed to the committee of the House of Commons now investigating the subject /
by Captain Maconochie
London : J. Ollivier, 1850

Crime and punishment : the mark system framed to mix persuasion with punishment, and make their effect improving, yet their operation severe /
by Captain Maconochie
London : J. Hatchard, 1846

Prisons and prisoners : with illustrations /
by Joseph Adshead
London : Longman, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1845
[inscribed by the author]

The criminal prisons of London and scenes of prison life /
by Henry Mayhew and John Binny
London : Griffin, Bohn and Co., 1862

Modern prisons : their construction and ventilation /
by J. Jebb
London : J. Weale, 1844

The works of Jeremy Bentham /
published under the superintendence of his executor, John Bowring
Edinburgh : William Tait, 1843

The trials of Arthur Thistlewood, James Ings, John Thomas Brunt, Richard Tidd, William Davidson, and others for high treason at the sessions House in the Old Bailey on Monday the 17th … Friday the 28th of April, 1820 : with the antecedent proceedings/
taken in shorthand by William Brodie Gurney
London : J. Butterworth and Son, 1820

Celebrated trials, and remarkable cases of criminal jurisprudence, from the earliest records to the year 1825
London : Printed for Knight and Lacey, 1825

The Newgate calendar improved : being interesting memoirs of notorious characters who have been convicted of offences against the laws of England, during the seventeenth century, and continued to the present time, chronologically arranged ... to which is added a correct account of the various modes of punishment of criminals in different parts of the world /
by George Theodore Wilkinson
London : Printed for Thomas Kelly, 1836

Martin's annals of crime; or, New Newgate calendar : and general record of tragic events including ancient and modern modes of torture, & c : ... a history of the most notorious ... felons and rogues of every description : interspersed with reflections and observations on the affairs of life … and the exercising of authority
London : William Mark Clark, 1837-1838
Prison discipline and the advantages of the separate system of imprisonment : with a description of the former prisons, and a detailed account of the discipline ... pursued in the new County gaol, at Reading /
by the Rev. J. Field
London : Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans ; Reading : R. Welch, 1848

What shall we do with our criminals? : with an original scheme of a reformatory institution /
by William Edwards
Melbourne : Edgar Ray and Co., 1857

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29th August 2012