Научная статья на тему 'Violence and law in Victorian England'

Violence and law in Victorian England Текст научной статьи по специальности «Философия, этика, религиоведение»

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Аннотация научной статьи по философии, этике, религиоведению, автор научной работы — Alexandrova A.P.

The aim of the article is to show the correlation between violence and law during the Victorian era. In order to achieve this goal it was necessary to answer the question Were the Victorians right to think that crime was in decline? taking into account statistics. The most conspicuous characteristics of criminal law in the Victorian period and the brief scheme of all the stages a criminal had to undergo are described in this paper.

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Текст научной работы на тему «Violence and law in Victorian England»


УДК 343.9


кандидат филологических наук, доцент, кафедра английской филологии, Орловский государственный университет E-mail: arnold71@inbox.ru

UDC 343.9


Candidate of Philology, Associate professor, Department of English Philology, Orel State University E-mail: arnold71@inbox.ru


В статье показана взаимосвязь между жестокостью и законом в Викторианскую эпоху; описываются особенности уголовного законодательства, а также приводится краткая схема всех стадий, которые должен был пройти преступник. Опираясь на статистические данные, предпринята попытка ответить на вопрос «Были ли викторианцы правы, полагая, что преступность идет на спад?».

Ключевые слова: закон, жестокость, преступление, преступник, королева Виктория, Викторианская эпоха, Викторианская Англия, Кровавый кодекс, приговор, наказание, мера наказания, смертный приговор (смертная казнь).

The aim of the article is to show the correlation between violence and law during the Victorian era. In order to achieve this goal it was necessary to answer the question "Were the Victorians right to think that crime was in decline?" taking into account statistics. The most conspicuous characteristics of criminal law in the Victorian period and the brief scheme of all the stages a criminal had to undergo are described in this paper.

Keywords: law, violence, crime, criminal, Queen Victoria, Victorian era, Victorian England, the Bloody Code, sentence, punishment, penalty, death penalty.

Whatever else may be included in the education of the people, the very first essential of it is to unbrutalise them; and to this end, all kinds of personal brutality should be seen and felt to be things which the law is determined to put down.

J.S. Mill1 and Harriet Taylor2, 1853

People have been very creative in their formation of laws, the rules that govern the activities of human beings within a community. In most cases, laws have been intended to maintain order and civility among people within a society. The laws could favor the rights of individual people over society or the rights of society over individual people.

Studying the question of violence and law in Victorian England makes it necessary to give a rather brief survey of what was happening during Queen Victoria' reign.

Queen Victoria was one of the most popular British monarchs. The Victorian era was at the height of the Industrial Revolution, a period of great social, economic and technological changes in the United Kingdom. Britain became the most powerful country in the world. The number of people living in Britain more than doubled. By 1850 Britain was producing more iron than the rest of the world together. Having coal, iron and steel it could produce new heavy industrial goods like ships and steam engines. The pride of Britain and a great example of its industrial power was its railway system. In the XIX century Britain was engaged in many "colonial wars" the purpose of which was to establish its influence in different parts of the world

and to ensure the safety of its trade routes.

Thus, the Victorian period was an age of great contrasts, and of major social and political reforms. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence for Britain.

The Victorians had faith in progress. One element of this faith was the conviction that crime could be beaten. Were the Victorians right to think that crime was in decline? From the middle of the nineteenth century the annual publication of Judicial Statistics for England and Wales seemed to underpin their faith; almost all forms of crime appeared to be falling. There are, of course, serious problems with official statistics of crime. Nevertheless, the statistics provide historians with a starting point for the pattern of crime in the same way that they provided a starting point for the Victorian's own assessments of crime.

In nineteenth-century England, the problem of violence, the meanings of gender, and the workings of law were all assuming more prominent places in culture and consciousness. As they did, the three converged on one issue in particular - that of more effectively controlling male violence, particularly in order to better protect women. Such a morally and politically stigmatized concept as "violence" is not simply descriptive of an objective set of actions but, particularly at its margins, subject to multiple, changing and often competing definitions. In some definitions, violence has not needed to be physical (it might, for example, be verbal, in the form of threats or insults, or the "mental cruelty" as cited in divorce law); in others, the infliction

© А.П. Александрова © A.P. Alexandrova

of physical pain and even injury has not necessarily been violence (in medical procedures or in the punishment of children, until very recently). New forms of "violence" are continually discovered, while behavior considered "violent" may in time cease to be so labeled. [10:9]

Even today views still differ on when (legal) force becomes (illegal) violence. The banning in ever more jurisdictions of physical punishment of children, the establishment of the crime of marital rape and the controversies in legal cases concerning consensual sexual violence illustrate the difficulty even in one period of finding universal agreement on the definition or boundaries of violence. In past times the concept of violence was at least as mutable, constructed and contested. As William Ian Miller has observed, "the word violence is a depository for a large number of utterly incommensurable activities, each with its own sociology and psychology." [4:77] The study of social context and social expectations is thus an integral part of any history of violence.

Violence is certainly a powerful and meaningful subject, today and in the past. Claims involving it carry a special weight and an inherent connection with morality. As its etymology suggests, violence is not only the force its perpetrator uses, or the physical injury he inflicts, but also the act's aim and effect - a "violation." Violence "is distinguished from more generalized force because it is always seen as breaking boundaries rather than making them." [4:60]

Violence in history is a rich subject not only for measurement but even more for interrogation - interrogation to understand the notion of violence itself, and to elucidate its relations with other social concepts grounded in nature, like gender, and with social institutions, like the law.

There is a specific and generally agreed-upon historical trend, and that is the centuries-long decline in England in the incidence of the kinds of violence. Officially recorded homicides fell in England from something like 20 per 100,000 annually in medieval times to about one per 100,000 at the opening of the twentieth century.

Many causes can be found for this decline (e.g. the growth of commercial-industrial society, of popular education and of the standard of living) but one prominent and more direct source was a deliberate "civilizing offensive" waged by emerging and strengthening states and other institutions of social order like churches and schools against "barbaric" behavior of which serious interpersonal violence was perhaps the most central mode.

Such a "civilizing offensive" was certainly at work in British history. Over several centuries, much unwanted infliction of physical (and sometimes mental) suffering was increasingly stigmatized, and exceptions to such stigmatization - the chastisement of children and other dependents, or social inferiors - were ever more reduced. The Victorian era formed a landmark in this long offensive. From one angle, Victorian England's heightened condemnation of interpersonal violence was but one chapter in a story of state-driven "pacification" of life going back at least to the sixteenth century, and broader than merely English [5].

Yet the Victorian period made fundamental contributions to this story. Two crucial things were added to the "civilizing project" in Britain. Just when one might have expected a relaxation of the drive, apparently begun in the Tudor era, to suppress interpersonal violence, instead the Victorian era saw a major intensification, as crimes of violence came to be taken more seriously by the state than ever before [8:3]. It may be confusing, while the recorded homicide rate had fallen to its lowest level in English history, and lesser violence had very probably also diminished, both officials and members of the writing and reading public exhibited greater fear and outrage in the face of interpersonal violence than ever before.

At the same time, the new economic, social and political order taking shape made personal self-discipline, orderliness and non-violence both more valuable and more necessary than ever before. Self-discipline, proverbially the way to better oneself morally and materially, meant restraining anger as well as lust, a gospel now preached more widely than ever before, in both religious and secular venues, to every member of society. And as the gospel of self-management spread, impulsive and violent behavior became all the more threatening. Diminishing acceptance of interpersonal violence was perhaps heralded by an emerging unease about violence against animals, most visibly practiced by the lower-class men who handled and employed them. In 1822, a year in which penalties for manslaughter were sharply increased, cruelty to animals was first criminalized, by means of Richard Martin's bill against cruel practices to cattle. Two years later the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals3 was established, and in 1835, while prosecution and punishment of violent offences was being legislatively advanced, a sweeping act prohibited cockfighting and bull-baiting, and extended the protection of Martin's Act4 to domestic pets [6:126-128.]

With so much poverty and such appalling living conditions, many people turned to crime as a way of life. Punishments were severe, even for children, who might be imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. Prisons were so overcrowded that 'hulks' were moored in river estuaries to house the overspill. Many convicts were sent to the colonies to serve out their sentences.

It is necessary to underline "assuming that theft can be generated by economic hardship, the economic downswings of the second half of the nineteenth century were generally not as serious, widespread, or life threatening as those of preceding centuries. Violent behaviour was increasingly frowned upon, dealt with increasingly severely by the courts, and seems, in consequence, to have been brought under a greater degree of control. The new police forces, uniformly established across the whole country in the mid-1850s and subject to annual inspections on behalf of Parliament, appear to have had some success in suppressing those forms of public behaviour that respectable Victorians considered rough and offensive. In so doing they may well also have had an impact on petty, opportunistic theft on the streets". [12]

Let's mention some important facts characterizing

people's life from the point of view of the law during the Victorian era.

Indecent assault: Victorians were sensitive to moral standards; this music hall dancer was imprisoned for three months on the grounds of indecency for wearing this costume in public.

Street crime: Gangs of thieves roamed the dingy streets of Victorian towns at night and often garroted their victims.

Royal scapegoat: Many people blamed Victoria herself for their hardships and several attempts were made on her life. This attempt was by an out-of-work Irishman in 1849.

Death penalty: At the beginning of the 19th century over 200 crimes were punishable by death. Despite reforms, there were still over 70 crimes carrying the death sentence in Victorian times, including petty theft and assault.

Wheel of misfortune: Conditions inside Victorian prisons were cramped and primitive. Treadmills, similar to the one shown here, were used as a form of exercise or to punish unruly prisoners.

A policeman's lot: Until the reform bills of Sir Robert Peel5 in the 1820s, when a proper civilian police force was set up in London, many criminals got away unpunished. By early Victorian times most towns had their own police force to apprehend villains, often recruited from the armed services and run along similar lines. [9:26-27]

While the general pattern of crime was one of decline, there were occasional panics and scares generated by particularly appalling offences. In the 1850s and early 1860s there were panics about street robbery, known then as 'garrotting'.

The murders of Jack the Ripper in the autumn of 1888 were confined to a small area of London's East End, but similarly provoked a nation-wide panic. Violence, especially violence with a sexual frisson, sold newspapers. But violent crime in the form of murder and street robbery never figured significantly in the statistics or in the courts.

Most offenders were young males, but most offences were petty thefts. The most common offences committed by women were connected with prostitution and were, essentially, 'victimless' crimes - soliciting, drunkenness, drunk and disorderly, vagrancy. Domestic violence rarely came before the courts. [12]

The most conspicuous characteristic of criminal law in the Victorian period was the demise of the so-called Bloody Code6 of capital statutes, and the corresponding salience of the prison as the primary site of criminal retribution. The Victorian age witnessed a dramatic contraction of the capital code and (in 1868) the end of public executions. A few statistics help to establish the basic parameters of this decisive transformation. In the period from 1805 to 1820, capital prosecutions in England and Wales rose by nearly 300 per cent and death sentences became more than three-and-a-half times more frequent. Only the wholesale exercise of judicial and royal discretion allowed this horrific system to be sustained into the early nineteenth century. Pardon rates for capital convicts nearly doubled in the first decades of the nineteenth century, subjecting criminal defendants to the full terrors of the law only to snatch them from the gallows

upon conviction. In the decade that followed the Reform Act of 18327 the legal landscape experienced a seismic shift. Successive capital crimes involving property enacted in the era of the Bloody Code were now struck from the statute books. From 1837 the death penalty applied only to crimes against the physical or political body such as murder, rape, sodomy, violent theft, and high treason; from 1841 onwards, the English death penalty was effectively restricted to the crime of murder. Both capital prosecutions and hangings dropped precipitously in this context. In the first two years of the Victorian era, the number of persons sentenced to death fell from 438 to 56; the number of actual hangings shrank by 90 per cent in the first decade of Victoria's reign [2:19-23].

Here is a brief scheme of all the stages a criminal had to undergo. [12]

Catching the criminal

Most prosecutions were not carried out by the police, but by private individuals, normally the victims of the crime. Anyone who was thought to have committed a crime, was taken to the parish constable or magistrate by the person who caught them. Even in places where there was a proper police force, most prosecutions were still started by private citizens. In 1885, the legal historian F.W. Maitland wrote, "To speak of the English system as one of PRIVATE prosecutions is misleading. It is we who have PUBLIC prosecutions, for any one of the public may prosecute; abroad they have STATE prosecutions or OFFICIAL prosecutions".

The courts and judiciary

In the early nineteenth century, court conditions and the treatment of both the victim and the accused was very different from today. Trials in court were often very quick. Prosecutors, judges and jurors had more power and choice than they do today.

The prosecutor was normally the victim of the crime, and he or she would accuse the defendant. The defendant was expected to explain away the evidence against them and, thus, prove their innocence.

What happened in the trial, depended on the court in which the case was being tried. Each different court had its own set ways of doing things.

Witnesses, Lawyers and Juries

A person on trial today will have been arrested and charged by the police. Then the public prosecution service will have decided to bring the case to court. The accused will have access to a defence lawyer and legal advice. Life was very different in the 19th century. It was rare for the accused to have a defence lawyer, unless it was a capital case, and prosecutors, judges, and jurors had lots of flexibility in how they interpreted the law. During the trial, neither prosecu tor nor defendant were entitled to any form of legal aid. This meant that the average prisoner did not get any legal help, because it cost too much. Whichever plea was entered, 'Guilty' or 'Not Guilty', evidence of the crime was heard and, in direct contrast to what happens today, evidence of previous convictions was heard before sentence was passed.

Sentences and Punishments

The Victorians were very worried about crime. Levels rose sharply towards the end of the 18th century and continued to rise through much of the 19th century. Offences went up from about 5,000 per year in 1800 to about 20,000 per year in 1840.

Although the Victorians firmly believed in punishing criminals, they faced a problem: what should the punishment be? One attempt to stop the growth of crime had been through making punishments severe (hanging or transportation). However, since the end of the 1700's, many people had become more and more angry at the number of people hanged for petty crimes.

By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne, fewer crimes carried a compulsory death sentence. There were fewer hangings, and sentences for petty crime were getting lighter. In their place other ideas were being tried out. These included building new gaols and looking at how these could be used to stop criminals from re-offending in the future. Transportation was often used instead of hanging for more serious crimes.


Transportation was an alternative punishment to hanging. Convicted criminals were transported to the colonies to serve their prison sentences. It had the advantages of removing the criminal from society and being quite cheap - the state only had to pay the cost of the journey.

During the 18th century, the government started to send prisoners to penal colonies in America, usually for seven years or sometimes for life. This stopped when the American War of Independence broke out in 1775.

In 1787, transportation started to the first penal colonies in Australia. Over the years, about 160,000 people were sent there: men, women and children, sometimes as young as nine years old.

At the beginning of Victoria's reign criminal offenders were regarded as individuals in the lower reaches of the working class who were reluctant to do an honest day's work for an honest day's wage, and who preferred idleness, drink, 'luxury' and an easy life. By the middle of the century the term 'criminal classes' was used to suggest an incorrigible social group - a class - stuck at the bottom of society. Towards the end of the century, developments in psychiatry and the popularity of Social Darwinism had led to the criminal being identified as an individual suffering from some form of behavioural abnormality that had been either inherited or nurtured by dissolute and feckless parents. All such perceptions informed the way that criminals were treated by the criminal justice system. Capital punishment

only remained for murderers and traitors. Transportation to Australia had reached its peak in the early 1830s; to all intents and purposes it ended in the early 1850s. Various experiments were tried in the treatment of prisoners. During the 1830s and 1840s attempts were made to enforce regimes of silence and/or isolation. If the problem was a moral one then, leaving offenders alone with their thoughts, requiring them to work, and providing them with occasional visits by the pries, was considered as the way to their reformation. By the end of the century, as the understanding of the criminal changed, the doctor and the psychiatrist had become at least as important as the priest. In addition, Victorian liberal ideas of improvement and philanthropy began to feed into penal policy. It should be stated that England had low murder rates in comparison with much of Europe. [12]

The criminal law was one topic which touched most citizens. In 1811 there had been a brutal multiple murder in the east end of London, which brought about a debate about policing. Until then the law had been enforced, with varying degrees of efficiency, by unpaid constables and watchmen appointed by each parish. London began to be seen as the haunt of violent, unpunished criminals, which was bad for trade.

Crimes were reported in lurid detail in the popular press. The Illustrated Police News, for example, was a penny weekly tabloid which dealt with crime, disaster and society scandal. It regaled readers with detailed illustrated accounts of the Jack the Ripper's crime scenes and the failure of police to catch the killer.

There are some examples in the English literature that throw some light on the problem of crime and violence in the Victorian period. The work of Arthur Conan Doyle provides an insight into the mindset of the Victorian man and his understanding of women in connection with violent crime. The Victorian public was not quite ready to accept the belief that a woman could participate in a violent crime and not have something be wrong with her mentally. In Victorian England women of good standing were not supposed to commit crimes, especially not crimes that were violent in nature. [17]

We cannot but agree that studying laws and legal codes offers the chance of gaining an understanding of the ways in which human beings viewed themselves as individual people, the relationship between community and themselves, the roles of their governments, and responsible behavior within their communities. Understanding these roles and relationships in turn offers insight into the human condition. [1]


1 John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was a philosopher, political economist and social reformer who had a huge impact on 19th century thought. In his writing, Mill championed individual liberty against the authority of the state. He believed that an action was right provided it maximised the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. In 1865 he was elected as Member of Parliament for Westminster. He was considered a radical in parliament because of his support for equality for women, compulsory education, birth control and land reform in Ireland.

2 Harriet Taylor (1807-1858) was an English philosopher and early advocate for women's rights, who is often overshadowed by her husband, the philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mills' 'The Principles of Political Economy' (1848) has a chapter attributed to Harriet called 'On the Probable Future of the Labouring Classes' in which she argues for the importance of education for all in the future of the nation, both economically and socially. Her essay, 'The Enfranchisement of Women' (1851), considered one of her most important works, was published under Mills's name. The essay strongly advocated that women be given access to the same jobs as men, and that they should not have to live in 'separate spheres' - views more radical than those of Mills himself.

3 The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) is a non-profit animal welfare organization originally founded in England in 1824 to pass laws protecting carriage horses from abuse. SPCA groups are now found in many nations, where they campaign for animal welfare, assist in cruelty to

animals cases, and attempt to find new homes for unwanted animals they feel are adoptable. Policies regarding animal euthanasia, handling feral cats, and similar issues vary by shelter.

4 The Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom with the long title "An Act to prevent the cruel and improper Treatment of Cattle"; it is sometimes known as Martin's Act, after the MP and animal rights campaigner Richard Martin. It was one of the first pieces of animal welfare legislation. The Act listed "ox, cow, heifer, steer, sheep, or other cattle", however this was held not to include bulls. A further act extended the wording of this Act to remedy the issue. This Act was repealed by the Cruelty to Animals Act 1849.

5Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) was a British Conservative statesman who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 10 December 1834 to 8 April 1835, and again from 30 August 1841 to 29 June 1846. Peel, whilst Home Secretary, helped create the modern concept of the police force, leading to officers being known as "bobbies" (in England) and "Peelers" (in Ireland) to this day. The first police force was organized in London in 1829. Whilst Prime Minister, Peel repealed the Corn Laws and issued the Tamworth Manifesto, leading to the formation of the Conservative Party out of the shattered Tory Party.

6 The Bloody Code is a term used to refer to the system of laws and punishments in England between 1688 and 1815. It was not referred to as such in its own time, but the name was given later owing to the sharply increased number of crimes that attracted the death penalty as capital crimes. Lots of men, women and children heard the judge order that they be taken to a place of execution and 'be hanged by the neck until dead'.

7The Reform Act 1832 (the Representation of the People Act 1832) was an Act of Parliament that introduced wide-ranging changes to the electoral system of England and Wales. It was designed to "take effectual Measures for correcting divers Abuses that have long prevailed in the Choice of Members to serve in the Commons House of Parliament." Though the 1832 Reform Act is sometimes known as the Great Reform Act, its impact was relatively minor in terms of those who could vote once the act was passed. There had been a great deal of opposition to the 1832 Reform Act, so any changes were bound to be cautious in the extreme. The electorate was extended but this did not compare to the huge impact the 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts had on the British political spectrum. One of the most obvious successes of the 1832 act was that it removed from the political set-up the oddities that were rotten boroughs.

Библиографический список (References)

1. Encyclopedia of Society and Culture in the Medieval World. / Pam J. Crabtree, Editor in Chief, Infobase Publishing, New York NY, 2008.

2. Gatrell V. A. C. The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868. Oxford, 1996, Pp. 19-23.

3. Cannon J. The Kings and Queens of Britain. Oxford Univ. Press, 2001.

4. Miller W. I. Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law and Society in Saga Iceland. Chicago, 1990, p. 77.

5. Norbert Elias. The Civilizing Process [orig. pub. 1939], London, 1978 & 1983; rev. ed. 2000.

6. Ritvo H. The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age. Cambridge, Mass., 1987, Pp. 126-128.

7. Ross J. Kings and Queens of Great Britain. London,1982.

8. Sharpe J, Dickinson R. Preliminary report to the Economic and Social Research Council, "Violence in Early Modern England, Research Findings, Initial Results" (2000), p. 3.

9. Victorian life. Kent, 1997, pp. 26-27

10. WienerM. Men of Blood. Violence, Manliness and Criminal Justice in Victorian England. Rice University, Cambridge university press, 2004, pp. 9-29

11. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/wilde/wildelawpage.html

12. http://vcp.e2bn.org/justice/ - Crime and the Victorians / By Professor Clive Emsley Last updated 2011-02-17

13. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/crime_01.shtml - Crime and the Victorians

14. http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/victorians/crime/crimepunishment.html

15. http://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2011/12/victorian-criminal-laws-barbarism-and-progress

16. http://www.cyberessays.com/lists/victorian-crime/

17. http://www.eiu.edu/historia/Hysell.pdf

18. http://www.legislation.vic.gov.au/

19. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/victorian-children-in-trouble/

20. http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~bp10/pvm/en3040/women.shtml - Women and the Law in Victorian England

21. http://www.victorianweb.org/history/legistl.html - Victorian Legislation: a Timeline

22. Kotova J.P., Alexandrova A.P. Spotlight on the history of Great Britain: manual. Orel: Orel state university. 2011. 283 p. (In English)

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