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Crime and Punishment
  Punishment 1750-1900 Main page

What was the purpose of the punishments used in the period 1750-1900?

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 the law.

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 prison.
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 colonies overseas.

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 was prison.
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 silence.
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.


1. Transportation
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.

Case Studies Case Study 4 Treatment of Juvenile Criminals Case Study 2 Prison Reform Case Study 1 Transportation Case Study 3 Victorian Prisons


Source 1 Source 2 Source 4 Source 3 Game Worksheet End To Punishment in the 20th Century to Crime Prevention 1750-1900 Case Studies to Punishment 1450-1750