Laws & Prisons In Victorian Era

England (1837-1901)

Crime Rate:

· Victorians were worried about the rising crime rate

o 1800-5000 offences per year

o 1840-20000 offences per year

· What should the punishment be?

Who was Sent to Prisons?

  • those awaiting trial
  • sentence of death
  • transportation
  • debtors
  • minor offenders

By the Victorian period, prisons held a wide range of offenders serving long sentences as well as petty criminals. However they were classified into different groups.

Prison Problems:

· Current prisons were small, old, and badly-run

· Prisons served as lock-ups for debtors (Debtor’s Prisons) and places where the accused were kept before their trial

o Debtor: person or institution that owes a sum of money (families usually accompanied them to prison)

· Common punishments:

o Transportation: sending offenders to America, Australia, or Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania)

§ By the 1830s, Australia had begun to refuse to be the ‘dumping ground’ for British’s criminals

o Execution: included hanging and the guillotine (hundreds of offences carried the death penalty)


· 1830s-people began to have doubts

· Answer: build lots of new prisons and extend the sentences (before late 18th century in England it was unusual to imprison people for long terms)

· 182-1877 90 prisons built or added

· New Prisons

o Unpleasant places-to deter people from committing crimes

o Prisoners made to face their faults by doing hard boring work (Ex. Walking a tread wheel or separating strands of rope were most common)

Two Types of Prison Systems

· County Goal: small lock-ups (‘Houses of Correction’)

o administered by Justices of the Peace

· Convict Goal: held prisoners as part of the process of transportation to other countries

o run by central government in London

o Newgate was the main prison in this system

· Hulks: decommissioned naval vessels used to house prisoners (part or the Convict Goal system)

o at one point, 2/3 of all prisoners were on the hulk

o Conditions were terrible: outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, and many prisoners died due to unsanitary conditions and polluted water from the Thames was used for all purposes

o During the day most worked ashore, usually on hard labour

o Last of hulks burned in 1857

  • VERY common for the wealthier inmates to pay for better accommodations


"A Victorian Prison - The National Archives." The National Archives. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

"Types of Punishment - Imprisonment - Victorian Crime and Punishment from E2BN." Types of Punishment - Imprisonment - Victorian Crime and Punishment from E2BN. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

"Life in Nineteenth-Century Prisons as a Context for Great Expectations." Life in Nineteenth-Century Prisons as a Context for Great Expectations. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.