Hello my dearest fellow Regency/Victorian fanatics!
Do you ever just sit there, minding your own business, when your mind suddenly starts asking the weirdest of questions?
Well this surely came out weirder than I thought it would but...Do you find yourself wondering about the most trivial of things? For example, how did someone think about inventing pizza, or taxes, or even the police?
I mean, the answer to my last question should be obvious: crime is as old as time and wherever there’s crime, there should be someone to protect us from it. But if you think about it, even until the Regency Era, there was no organized police force! So how did it come to exist the way we know it today?
During the Regency Era, people could only rely on unpaid constables and watchmen appointed by each parish to protect them for criminals. And guess what, those felt inclined to protect the peers of the realm!
The increase of the population of London and -surprise, surprise- poverty and horrid living conditions had a consequence that apparently no one had anticipated: crime.
I mean, I just can’t understand why the poor are acting like that, killing each other over a piece of bread… Or how could they be so depraved as to attack a Lord.
(Yes, my friends do often tell me that ‘sarcasm’ is my middle name…)
Well, it’s not rocket science, but I think that living conditions might actually have something to do with the horrifying rise of crime back in the day..
In any case, things were becoming more and more serious. And in 1811 it happened: a brutal multiple murder in the east end of London, which made the matter of policing more urgent than ever. And even though no one was really concerned about the street urchins that died every day, they had to do something about the image of London as a trade metropolis.
And thus, in 1829, the Metropolitan Police was founded.
And don’t they all look lovely? 😛 Their headquarters were in Scotland Yard, just off Whitehall. Their uniform made them look more like park‐keepers than soldiers, as many people were actually afraid of them and it took several years for them to be popularly accepted. But London became a safer place.
According to Liza Picard, The Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 gave them so much power that they would even arrest children for knocking on doors. Hm, great power corrupts, or so they say. In 1869 they were even allowed to raid gaming halls or brothels. By 1860 even villages and counties outside London had their own police forces.
So to the interesting part right now. You are a criminal and you have just been arrested. What fate awaits you?
The first step of course would be for you to have a trial, which wouldn’t take more than two days. And you would also have an audience, as people found these trials very exciting. Of course, you had to know the right people to get a ticket, but even so the courtroom could be so crowded that the ticket‐holders had to share the dock with the accused. Even better than TV, right?
Guilty as charged ladies and gentlemen! So what happens now?
There was an improvement from medieval prisons and torture chambers. Though, to be honest, there are very few things that wouldn’t be considered improvements when compared to those. Thanks to Jeremy Bentham’s idea in 1821, Millbank was a prison built in a star shape with radiating wings, so that daylight and fresh air reached every cell and, more importantly, the wardens could oversee every wing from a central core.
And the conditions were pretty decent: every prisoner had a cell to himself, with adequate washing facilities! That’s even better than some modern ones, right? Yes, except for one thing. Prisoners were deprived of all human contact. They would shut them in their cells, mask their faces, and forbid them to speak. Simply maddening. This compulsory silence was meant to encourage moral contemplation, but not surprisingly, led to quite a few suicides instead.
In the past, the only reasons for executing people were murder and treason. But in 1861, people started thinking of punishing lesser crimes in a more reasonable manner. And this is where the colonies come in handy. About 460 convicts were sent to Australia each year! And it was all great until 1853, when the colonies refused to accept England's convicts any longer. So criminals were sentenced to hard labour in English prisons instead.
So far so good, but apparently, the criminals were more than the prisons could contain! Now what?
A solution for long term prisoners was to transfer them to provincial prisons, or to the dreaded Hulks – decommissioned warships anchored in the mud off Woolwich. They were so dark, damp and verminous that very few prisoners made it out alive. Oh my!
But it can get worse when you get the worst of sentences and people swarm to watch, as this was still considered public entertainment. In 1849, nearly 30,000 people watched the hanging of a notorious pair of murderers. As if they were watching some kind of sport! Sadly, it took another 20 years before hangings would be conducted within prison walls, allowing people to retain a form of decency.
Now that you have all the information, do you think that law enforcement and punishment of today is much different than what it was in the past?
It definitely never ceases to amaze me how people have always committed crimes despite the horrifying consequences. It makes one wonder what the true purpose of imprisonment is, reformation or punishment?
Looking forward to your verdict my esteemed members of the jury!
Till next time, stay out of trouble! 🙂
Written by Ava MacAdams
Source: British Library