What was the purpose of the punishments used in the
During the period covered by this Gallery there
were serious debates about the purposes of punishment. Many new ideas
were tried in answer to the old problem of what to do with those who break
Gradually, through this period, the older "shaming"
punishments like the stocks and the pillory fell out of use. So did whipping.
Fewer and fewer people were hanged. Public executions became rowdy, lawless
occasions, and many people thought they were barbaric. They were stopped
in 1868 and from then onwards, hangings were carried out in private, in
For much of the 18th and the first half of the 19th century transportation
was a common punishment. At first convicts were sent to America, then,
after US independence in 1776, to Australia. Transportation seemed to
have many advantages:
- It was believed that crimes were committed
by a "criminal class", so removing the offenders from the
country should cause crime to decline;
- Little was known about Australia, so fear
of the unknown might deter people from committing crimes;
- The convict had the chance to think about
changing his or her ways.
- The convicts also provided labour to build up British
19th century governments were prepared to get
involved in many aspects of society which governments had not ventured
into before. They intervened in factories, mines and public health, set
up schools and police (See Gallery Crime
Prevention 1750-1900). They also decided
to try to solve the growing crime problem.
Crime was still increasing, so transportation was obviously not working.
It also seemed unreasonable to give criminals free passage to Australia
when others were paying to go there. Anyway, Australians were agitating
to put an end to using their new country as a criminal dump. The answer
Prisons had changed little since medieval times. John Howard pointed out
how awful they were in 1777 and other reformers had worked to improve
them. But it was not until the 1830s that a major effort was made to make
prison the core of Britain's punishment system, which it still is. There
was a crisis as transportation ended and there were not enough prisons.
For a while 70% of prisoners were kept in the "hulks" -disused
warships. Then a massive prison-building programme began: 90 prisons were
built between 1840 and 1877, at enormous public expense.
There was considerable debate over what prisons were for, and this affected
how they were run: the "régime" as it was called. Two
big ideas were borrowed from the United States: the "Separate System"
was designed by deeply religious people to reform criminals through continuous
solitary confinement. On their own, it was believed, criminals would be
forced to think about repentance. The "Silent System" was just
as tough in its way, with convicts made to do hard, boring work in total
Ideas of punishment and deterrence dominated government attitudes to prison
for the rest of this period. "Hard bed, hard board, hard labour"
summed it up. At the same time there was a gradual move towards separate,
although still very tough, treatment for young offenders.
The BIG QUESTION in this Strand is about what punishments were supposed
to achieve. This Gallery has interesting examples of punishments of different
kinds, with different aims. What do you think was the point of each? Use
the Case-Studies and the Gallery Worksheet to analyse the purpose of each.
2. Prison reform
3. Victorian prisons
4. Treatment of young people
How To Work
1. Work through each of these Case-Studies. Read and analyse the sources
in each. There are HINTS in each to help you get the most out of the Sources.
2. At the end of the Case-Study, fill in some of the Gallery Worksheet
3. Move on to the next Case-Study. You will only really be able to answer
the Key Question when you have done both the Case-Studies. However, you
could divide the job between two halves of the class, sharing their results.