top of page

Time and punishment: the Victorian view

The Victorians were an industrious lot. They were always reforming things and they were keen, in particular, to leave behind the flamboyant and reckless reputation of the Georgians for a more sober and moral society. You might be wondering what this has to do with how punishments changed during the 19th century. Well it has quite a lot to do with it. For the Victorians, a moral and Christian society would help those less fortunate to improve themselves through hard work and Christian values. It was better to reform those that could be reformed to become productive members of a sober, hard working society than condemn them forever.

This was not always the view. Until the mid-19th century many criminals found themselves facing the hangman's noose, even for the most petty of crimes. Transportation - exile to a far-away land, usually Australia - was another common sentence. Punishment - not reform - was the order of the day.

However the beginning of the 19th century coincided with the end of the age of enlightenment, a time when philosophers believed they had worked out how society worked or should work. One of the major philosophical schools of thought was so-called 'positive liberty'. Positivist liberalism suggested that our moral character is developed by the society surrounding us; if society supports and cares for everyone equally, people will be able to reach their potential. This was a change from the old concept of 'negative liberty' which suggested that people should be left to their own devices with no involvement from outside sources like the government. This shift in thinking had a big impact on how society approached criminal punishment.

A famous Victorian reformer is the woman who once graced our five pound notes; Elizabeth Fry. Elizabeth was a penal reformer who was interested in women in jail in the early part of the 19th century. At this time prison was not like it is now. Prisons were not split by gender, age or seriousness of crime. This meant women and children could be held with the men or a petty thief could be held with a hardened and dangerous criminal.

The conditions were overcrowded, unsanitary and unhealthy. The wardens were corrupt which meant that if you had money you might receive better treatment but most people in jail were poor. The jails were there simply to hold you until your trial when you would be released, transported or even hanged. Elizabeth Fry saw all this when she went to Newgate prison in London and it horrified her. Elizabeth felt that prisoners should not be punished but reformed. She started the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. The association implemented a school for the children within the prison. They brought in sewing materials for the women to learn skills that they could use after they left prison to earn money. These improvements were taken up by other jails.

Elizabeth Fry also championed a change in the transportation of women. The women at Newgate would be transferred through London to the ships in open carriages where people threw rotten food and other nasty things at them. She changed this so that they were transported in closed carriages. She also arranged that on the long journey to Australia the women and children were given a share of food and water. She also was able to give them the materials to make quilts on the journey, which they could sell once they arrived. This also gave them a skill to help them find employment. Fry also championed the end of transportation, which eventually happened in 1837. Fry, along with other reformers, put so much pressure on the government that the Gaol Act 1823 was passed. This act said that

  • jailers should be paid

  • prisons should be made secure

  • female prisoners should be kept separately from male prisoners

  • doctors and chaplains should visit prisons

  • attempts should be made to reform prisoners

With this new leaning toward reform over punishment there was a need for new prisons that could accommodate the changes and the regimes that were to be put in place. In the mid 19th Century 90 new prisons were built. There were two new types of reform regimes:

The separate system came into force with the Prison Act 1839. The aim of the system was to break the criminal culture within prisons and to force the prisoners to reflect on their crimes and, with the help of Christian values, reform their moral character. The system worked by having all inmates in separate cells. All the prisoners' identities were removed while in prison. Instead they were all numbered. Even the guards didn't know their names or what their crimes were. They were not allowed to speak and had to stay in their cell alone and silent. The only visitor was the chaplain who would encourage them to live a more Christian life. The only times they were allowed out of their cells were for exercise and church. When they left their cell they were forced to wear a mask and wear felt shoes so they were not heard or seen by the other prisoners. When exiting they would hold a rope with notches that separated them from other prisoners, enough that they couldn't talk. In the church they were in individual stalls so that they still couldn't see or talk to each other. The system as you can imagine didn't work. In Pentonville prison, which was seen as the most severe of the separate prisons, inmates went mad and three committed suicide.

The silent system was similar to the separate system except the inmates were not kept separate but together in silence. They didn't have to wear masks and were not kept in their cells. They were made to do meaningless and repetitive jobs such as walking a treadwheel or turning a crank. Again, the idea was that by making the inmates live in this way they would be able to reflect on their criminal ways and reform. The silence system also didn't work and also led to suicides and mental health problems.

Hard bed, hard board, hard labour system. As the century wore on attitudes changed. People started to believe that most criminals wouldn't reform. This system was a continuation of the silent system but much harsher. The food was made plain, boring and repetitive with only water to drink. The beds until this point had been hammocks; these were changed to just hard wooden boards. The hard, pointless labour carried on. This system was no longer aiming to reform but to punish.

There were four common types of hard labour that could be employed. Some prisons employed their own unique form. These are the four most common:

The treadwheel was a large cylinder with steps around it. The prisoner would stand in a stall and tread on the steps. This action caused the wheel to turn, forcing the prisoner to keep walking on the spot whilst getting nowhere. They were made to do this for eight hours a day. They would do ten minutes on the wheel and five off.

The crank was a mechanical handle which prisoners were forced to turn thousands of times, for absolutely no reason. The other end of the crank would provide resistance to make it harder to turn.

In the Shot Drill exercise, the prisoner would have to pick up a cannonball, lift it to their chest and carry it to the far end of the yard and put it down. This process was then repeated all day.

Oakum-picking saw prisoners have to untwist old tar-covered ropes from ships to separate the fibres. The process of oakum-picking would make the hands of the prisoners’ cramp and bleed and they would have to do this for long periods of time. It's from this activity that we get the phrase 'money for old rope'.

By 1898 the hard bed, hard board, hard labour system was seen to be too harsh. It was accepted that the point of the penal system was to punish and reform, not one or the other. A new act of parliament was brought in to make prisons less harsh. The treadwheel was to be banned, isolation could not last longer than a month, any labour done in prison had to have a useful purpose and younger inmates should not be mixed with older offenders. This was the start of the modern prison system that we know to this day. Over the last 124 years there have been changes made to the system but the main objectives have stayed the same - to punish but to reform prisoners so that they don't reoffend.

Find out more about 19th century crime and punishment in our new exhibition, Daring Detectives & Dastardly Deeds.

2,657 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page