What was it like to be a prisoner in Georgian London? At a recent London Historians gathering, I had the opportunity to listen to several papers about English prison life, old and new in, “Crime and Punishment – The Capital in the Clink”. The event was part of the regular Salon For the City series, held on the last Thursday of every month showcasing London’s history through talks given at the Westminster Arts Reference Library.
Today’s prison system is a far cry from the prisons of Georgian England. When you think about prisons today, what comes to mind? Massive state funded institutions, barbed wire, orange jumpsuits, and flashy Netflix shows?
When you think about the prisons of the past, you probably think, waistcoats, ruffled shirts, nasty gruel, hangings, East London accents and a bit of Dickens thrown in for good measure. Well, I’m sorry to say, you’d be far off the mark. According to Tim Hitchcock, Professor of Digital History at the University of Sussex, our current notions of past prison life are coloured by the changes made during the Victorian period. Prison life before Little Dorrit was quite different. Hitchcock presented a fascinating look at Georgian prison life from the inside in all its unsavoury, corrupt, glory.
Murder Immortalized: “Smugglerius” and the “Anatomical Crucifixion”
On May 27, 1776, Thomas Henman was hanged at Tyburn for the murder of customs official, Joseph Pierson, who had stopped him for smuggling tea. He was sentenced at the Old Bailey, along with his co-conspirators, Benjamin Harley and Joseph Bland, on May 22, 1776:
“JOSEPH BLANN, otherwise BLAND, BENJAMIN HARLEY , and THOMAS HENMAN were indicted for that they with certain clubs and sticks feloniously, wilfully, and of their malice aforethought did strike and beat Joseph Pierson in and upon his head, face, arms, back, stomach, belly, sides, and legs, thereby giving him several mortal bruises in and upon his said head, face, &c. of which he languished from the 12th of April until the 10th of May, and then died…They received sentence immediately (this being Friday) to be hanged at Tyburn the Monday following, and their bodies to be afterwards dissected and anatomized; which sentence was executed upon them.”
After he was hanged, Henman’s corpse was passed onto famous Scottish anatomist, William Hunter (May 23, 1718 – March 30, 1783) to be flayed and dissected. Henman was then immortalized by Genoese artist, Agostino Carlini (1718- August 15, 1790) when he cast Henman in the same pose as the famous ‘Dying Gaul’ (‘Dying Gladiator’), and jokingly dubbed him, Smugglerius.
Henman wasn’t the only Englishman to be immortalized in this macabre manner. James Legg, a 78 year old former Captain, was hanged in November 1801. Legg was accused of murdering William Lambe at Chelsea Hospital one month earlier on October 2nd. After he was hanged, he was also passed on for dissection and écorché (a figure showing the muscles of the body without skin) to surgeon Joseph Constantine Carpue (May 4, 1764 – January 30, 1846) and artist Thomas Banks (December 29, 1735 – February 2, 1805). Banks wanted to see if the Crucifixion of Christ was anatomically incorrect. Since he could not string up a live person, a corpse would have to do. Legg was promptly removed from the gallows, nailed to a cross, flayed, and then cast by Banks.
Morbid? Horrific? Shocking? To modern minds it would be, however, the casting of Henman and Legg for science and art caused little uproar at the time. This was seen as normal and that’s partially due the the vast difference between our current vs Georgian notions of justice. In 1751, the government passed The Murder Act, as a deterrent. The act decreed that anyone found guilty of murder was not permitted a proper burial, but would be either be dissected or hanged in chains. It also stipulated that murderers were to be promptly dispatched within 2 days of their verdict or 3, if the day fell on a Sunday.
As of this writing, there are 90,000 prisoners in the UK, 2, 220, 300 (or 1 in 110 Americans) imprisoned in the US, and 37, 864 men, women, and youth under 18, sitting in jail cells in Canada. Prisons, like Newgate (which was functional for over 700 years), were holding tanks for trials and punishments. Prisoners stayed there before trial or until their sentences were meted out. The only people languishing in jail were debtors who could scarcely afford the costs of day-to-day upkeep, let alone enough to pay their debts to get out. As you can see from the case of Thomas Henman, and James Legg, justice was dispensed swiftly once a verdict was given. Murderers and the like were not held for years on end as they are in modern jails on death row or serving life terms.
As for the punishments, people were not sent to the gallows at the drop of a hat as is often depicted in TV and film. According to Hitchcock, in the 18th century, there were 8 hanging days per year at Tyburn. People came to watch the spectacle but the reality was that most people sentenced to hang were freed instead. Hanging was about setting an example, and that example wasn’t set as often as we’re made to think.
Life on the Inside: Close-knit Community or Early Modern Mafia?
Unlike our government run institutions, Georgian prisons were privately owned, and run for profit. They were leased to a private owner, and the day-to-day management of the prison was overseen by its inhabitants. This was usually a committee that set tasks like washing and chores, and ran a garnishment system. If you wanted to survive in the slammer in the 1700s, you had to pay a fee to the committee during your stay. You had to have money on the inside to sustain your basic needs: you needed to buy food, clothing, warmth, and pay for the ability to have visitors. None of the basic necessities were supplied by the government in the 18th century. Prison life in Georgian London fostered a strange sense of community, mixed with little Mafia-esque profiteering on the side. Hitchcock stated, ‘Prisons were much more normal than they were to become’, however, as with any system, there was abuse, and in Georgian prisons, it was rampant. Scholars like Hitchcock, who has spearheaded the Old Bailey Online, and the London Lives: 1690-1800 projects, and historical novelists like Antonia Hodgson, who wrote The Devil in the Marshalsea, help shed light on the lives of prisoners in Georgian London.
The Overhaul of the Georgian System
1.) The ‘Reality Stars’ of Georgian London: The Celebrity Criminal
Modern audiences have been captivated with the rise and fall of the ‘reality TV star’ for the past 15 years. The “average Joe”, propelled into the spotlight, briefly cheered on by the public, then burnt by their 15 minutes of fame. The Georgian underworld had its own brand of low-brow celebrity found in the common criminal. Hitchcock recounted the several stories of notorious criminals, like Patrick Madan, who tried to drown a man in a vat of urine and feces. He ran Newgate and controlled its garnish system like a Mafia boss, and was also an instigator of a riot there in 1777. Madan was one of several “celebrity” criminals in the 18th century, along with the wily Jack Sheppard (March 4, 1702 – November 16, 1724), who escaped jail 4 times, and notorious highwayman, Joseph ‘Blueskin’ Blake (October 31, 1700 – November 11, 1724). This “criminal celebrity” element was admired; books and plays that glamourized the criminal lifestyle were hugely popular at the time; like Daniel Dafoe’s, Moll Flanders, and The Beggar’s Opera, by John Gay, based on the notorious Jack Sheppard, was the most popular play of the 18th century. These works celebrated thieves, and celebrity criminals, and the idea of ‘dying at Tyburn with your chin up’, and ‘dying with words on your lips’; such bravado became something to aspire to for the lower classes.
2.) Stop Thief!: Organized Crime
Prior to the establishment of the Bow Street Runners in 1749 by Henry (April 22, 1707 – October 8, 1754) and John Fielding (September 16, 1721 – September 4, 1780), there was no formal policing in London. Earlier ‘Runners’, who were little more than thief takers, were hired to catch criminals. Unfortunately, this form of Boba Fett bounty hunting produced a lot of corruption. The lure of turning people in for a reward outgrew the need for serving justice. Shady characters like thief-taker Jonathan Wild (1682 – May 24, 1725) made a mockery of the system by using gangs of thieves to steal and extort goods from innocent people, then returning them and claiming to save the day. Wild was the king of organized crime in Georgian London. Eventually he was exposed by his henchmen, and also blamed for the fiasco surrounding his failures in capturing Blueskin and Sheppard. He was hanged at Tyburn on May 24, 1725 and his body was later given to the Royal College of Surgeons for dissection. He is currently on display at the Hunterian Museum in London.
3.) The Gordon Riots
For 5 days between June 2-7, 1780, The Gordon Riots flared across London. The death toll reached 700, with hundreds more injured. What started off as an anti-Catholic riot, evolved into anti-criminal system riot and Newgate was burned to the ground. Hitchcock stated, ‘This was the moment at which the modern prison was born’; shortly after the Gordon Riots, prisons were changed to a new form in the 1780s, along with the creation of Australia as a penal colony.
In the end, Mafia-like corruption, the popularity of the celebrity criminal, and riots over the conditions and injustices in London’s prisons in the late 1700s brought the system to its knees, making way for the prison system we have today.
Follow Tim Hitchcock on Twitter: @TimHitchcock
For more information about Tim Hitchcock, please visit: Historyonics