Shropshire Routes to Roots
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4. Forms of Punishment
Crime levels were rising throughout nineteenth-century Britain and one of the main attempts at trying to stem the tide was through imposing severe punishments, in the hope this would deter others.
The ultimate punishment was hanging. Although this was normally reserved for murderers and rapists, the courts were not shy of imposing the penalty on lesser crimes. Between 1800 and 1900, 3524 people were hanged in England and Wales; 1353 for murder.
As the century progressed, there was a dawning realisation that a public execution, far from deterring criminals, was simply a public spectacle, with thieves taking advantage of householders' absences and the rich source of pick-pocketing available at such a scene. The Prisons Act of 1868 made it mandatory that all future executions were to take place within the prison walls. The last person to be hanged in public in Shropshire was John Mapp. You can find out about his hanging in the story of Murderous Mapp on this website (Opens in a new window).
The alternative to hanging was transportation, which removed the criminal from society without the state having to pay for them, other than an initial outlay. In theory, prisoners were only transported to the colonies for a set period of five or seven years. In practice, such a transportee might as well say farewell to his friends and family, since there was no system in place to enable them to return. They were simply dumped; out of sight and out of mind. This practice was abolished in 1867, as it was realised that the root causes of crime were not in emulation, but in the poverty and deprivation of the working classes.
Taking away an individual's freedom has always been a preferred method of punishment by many civilisations across the world. Until the latter part of the eighteenth century, long term imprisonment was a rarity in England, with hanging and transportation the main forms of serious punishment. Up until that time, prisons were simple lock-ups for debtors, or where offenders were kept prior to trial. They were overcrowded, unsanitary and generally places of degradation and corruption, with males, females and children kept together in absolute squalor.
By the time Victoria came to the throne, a term of imprisonment had become an acceptable way of dealing with serious offenders. Between 1842 and 1877, 90 prisons were built or extended. One major result of the Howard report was the change of emphasis from simple punishment to the idea of punishment and rehabilitation. A criminal had to be shown the value of working for a living and "Hard Labour" was one way of doing this (below).
There were more pointless exercises, however, which had very little to do with rehabilitation. One was "The Crank" where the prisoner turned a large handle in his cell many thousand times a day. This could be tightened by the warders, making it harder to turn, which resulted in their nickname of "screws". Another exercise was the "Treadmill", where the prisoner simply walked the wheel, sometimes to run a mill, but often just for punishment. These worthless forms of punishment were not abolished until 1898.
At the end of the nineteenth century, imprisonment had become the main form of punishment. Conditions, whilst no longer brutal, were still very much geared towards providing as much discomfort for the prisoners as possible, with hard wooden beds, dull food and little in the way of relief. A true rehabilitating regime was still a long way off, although in some prisons, libraries and communal rest areas were being introduced for the less serious offenders.
Hard Labour was exactly what it said. Prisoners were often used as the main resource in road building or quarrying, and could be sentenced for a matter of days, weeks or even years. The reasons were threefold. Firstly it would teach them the value of the work ethic; secondly it would remove the temptation for idle hands to get up to mischief, and thirdly it was cheap labour, although the latter was never openly admitted. Nor was there any thought for the age of the offender, with children often sentenced to work alongside adults.
The practice of fining offenders was not in common use, as many had no means to pay. Imprisonment, hard labour or a spell in a reformatory were really the only ways an offender could be shown to have been punished.
There was often little distinction between adult and juvenile offenders. If they committed a crime they were punished. For example, in Shrewsbury, in April 1882, a boy of ten, with two previous convictions for theft was sentenced to twenty-one days hard labour, plus five years in a reformatory.
A reformatory was an institution for the training of juvenile offenders. They were first set up by Mary Carpenter in Bristol in 1852, and soon spread across the country. Children up to the age of sixteen received food, clothing and lodging whilst there, and were taught basic literacy and numeracy along with a strict moral code. They were also taught the basics of a trade with the object of "reforming" them from a life of crime to one of social productivity. Reformatory Schools remained in operation until they were replaced by "Approved Schools" in 1932.
Reward as a form of Punishment
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Page created 2003 and last updated 27 July 2007