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Gruesome Georgians: Crime and Punishment

In Georgian Britain, crime was rife. Over 200 offences were punishable by death, including murder, rape, arson, forgery and sheep stealing. A gruesome, painful and humiliating demise was often favoured by the courts.

In Georgian Britain, crime was rife. Over 200 offences were punishable by death, including murder, rape, arson, forgery and sheep stealing. A gruesome, painful and humiliating demise was often favoured by the courts.

Many buildings and structures related to Georgian crime and punishment survive, and many are listed as  fine examples of Georgian architecture, as well as for their place in the fascinating history of our justice system.

The Women’s Prison, York (now York Castle Museum). Grade I listed

By Jitka Erbenová via Wiki commons

The grand columns and parapet (protective wall along the edge of the roof) identify this former prison in the centre of York as a stunning example of Georgian architecture. The Debtors Prison (built 1701- 1705) and adjoining Women’s Prison (pictured 1780-85) was home to a number of notorious inmates, including legendary highwayman Dick Turpin who was tried and sentenced to death there in 1739. Turpin was hanged at Tyburn in York, and the gravestone that reputedly marks his location remains at nearby Fishergate.

By Gareth Foster via Wiki commons

Another inmate of note at the prison was Elizabeth Boardingham, who was burned at the stake in York in 1776. Elizabeth was frustrated with her increasingly unreliable husband, who frequently served prison sentences, leaving her alone to look after their children. She pressured her lover, Thomas Aikney, to kill John, for which he obliged, stabbing John in the chest at the family home. Aikney was sentenced to death by hanging, but for her part in the murder Elizabeth was dealt a harsher sentence. It was thought that in her plotting, Elizabeth had disrupted the natural hierarchy which ranked men above women, and so was charged with treason rather than murder, and sentenced to burn at the stake. She was the last person to be executed in this way in Yorkshire.

Newgate Prison, London

Newgate Prison execution yard 1902- 1904 © Historic England Archive

Public hangings gave grave warning to would-be criminals and served as thrilling entertainment for the morbidly curious crowd. From 1783, the public executions at London’s main prison drew huge crowds before they were moved inside to an execution yard. The last person to be publicly executed in Britain was Michael Barrett, who was hanged at Newgate Prison, for his supposed part in a bomb attack in Clerkenwell, in 1868. It is believed that Barrett was innocent and inadequate eyewitness statements led him to be linked to the bombing, when he was in fact in Glasgow at the time.

The Central Criminal Court buildings 1910 © Historic England Archive

Nowadays, the site of Newgate Prison houses the Old Bailey, or Central Criminal Court, a Grade II* listed building, which was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London.

St Peter’s  Cross and Village cage, Surrey. Grade I listed

© Copyright Richard Rogerson

Not all prisons were grand architectural affairs. The plaque on this 15th century building states ‘the cage for the detention of petty offenders was added in 1773 and was last used in 1882 to detain poachers’.

Unlike our modern day organised police force, in the 18th century local law enforcement was left to elected volunteer constables in each parish. Unsurprisingly this was largely ineffective.

Public Punishment

Criminals convicted of lesser crimes were fined, or shamed in public. Just as some parishes had their own small jail cells, it was common for there to be visibly placed implements for punishment.

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Stocks and whipping posts have been used internationally throughout history, and were popular in Georgian times as a form of physical punishment and public humiliation. Stow whipping post (pictured) features irons on either side which are dated 1789. The Village stocks at Great Budworth are believed to date back to the early 18th century. Low level criminals were likely left tied by the wrists or bound by the ankles to be pelted with rotten vegetables by their fellow townspeople.

Celebrity Criminals

Notorious highwaymen were the celebrities of the Georgian era, their tales of daring escape passed in whispers through towns and villages. One such criminal was Jack Sheppard of Spitalfields, London, who is known to have been caught for thievery and escaped from prison at least four times over the course of his career.

The fifth and final time Jack was arrested, he was sentenced to hang at Tyburn, a location close to what is now Marble Arch in London. London executions took place at Tyburn from the early 12th century until 1783, where up to 20 felons were hanged at the same time, 12 times a year.

When Jack Sheppard was transported to Tyburn by horse and cart down Holborn and Oxford Street in 1724, a procession followed with crowds of up to 200,000, one third of London’s population at the time. Jack stopped for a sherry on the way to his execution, where his autobiography was also on sale.

Plaque at former Tyburn Gallows 1900-1910 © Historic England

Further reading

4 comments on “Gruesome Georgians: Crime and Punishment

  1. Ailin O Broin

    A serious factual inaccuracy in the Newgate piece – Michael Barrett was not involved in the Clerkenwell bomb and protested his innocence up to his execution; he was a victim of a police and judicial backlash against the Irish community and was a convenient scapegoat becasue of his Fenian sympathies despite having been in Scotland at the time of the bombing. He was subsequently vindicated. There are echoes of this in modern Britain in the cases of the Guildford 4, Birmingham 6, etc. – plus sa change!

    • Hi Ailin, thank you for getting in touch to suggest this amendment. We’ve altered the text accordingly to reflect this part of the history.

    • Ailin O Broin

      Thank you. I think it is important in an authoritative blog to get the facts correct particulalrly when the piece relates to a historical event that has modern echoes and is sensitive within a particular ethnic community. I would like to see an Histroic England article on Irish heritage in England which may help illustrate some of the positive contributions we have made to this country.

      • That’s a great idea, Ailin. We’re always keen to produce content which represents the diverse history of the country, and celebrates the valuable contribution to the built environment from a wide range of ethnic communities.

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