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Early 19th Century thoughts on crime and punishment

It may be surprising to present-day readers to think that it was once thought a “soft option” to transport a convicted criminal to a colony such as Australia’s Botany Bay. But as this letter shows, that is what some influential people thought at the time:

“the sentence of the Court is that you shall no longer be burdened with the support of your wife and family. You shall be immediately removed from a very bad climate and a country over burdened with people to one of the finest regions of the earth, where the demand for human labour is every hour increasing, and where it is highly probable you may ultimate regain your character and improve your future. The Court has been induced to pass the sentence upon you in consequence of the many aggravating circumstances of your case, and they hope your fate will be a warning to others.”

Sydney Smith, Whig clergyman and wit, as quoted in Robert Peel, by Douglas Hurd, page 78.

As an aside, Peel was involved in two issues – re-connecting bank notes to bullion, and the 1844 Bank Charter Act – that have enduring relevance to our own time. Hurd’s biography is very readable and has a nice tone to it; in my view, however, Norman Gash’s study remains the definitive one.

22 comments to Early 19th Century thoughts on crime and punishment

  • It may be surprising to present-day readers to think that it was once thought a “soft option” to transport a convicted criminal to a colony such as Australia’s Botany Bay.

    It depends what is meant by ‘criminal’. What kind of crimes are we talking about?

  • We are talking hardened criminals, but in most instances property criminals rather than murderers or rapists or what we would consider the most serious of crimes. A couple of my ancestors that I know of were transported to Australia. One was guilty of burglary and was a repeat offender. Another was guilty of highway robbery, which I think was a fairly grand crime as far as went for people who were transported to Australia.

    Given that transportation replaced death penalties in many instances, and at the time, “imprisonment” in the UK often involved being locked in a crowded, rotting hulk floating on the river Medway (or elsewhere), transportation was certainly a much less severe punishment. (When they got to Australia, convicts were generally required to spend half of the period of their sentence (or about 12 years in the case of a life sentence) as indentured laborers or indentured servants, and the other half on what we would recognise as a form of probation.

  • Thanks Michael. That is more or less concurrent with the notion I had on the subject. The practice does seem fair enough within the context of the time and the place, or even within a contemporary context, as far as my opinion is concerned. Personally I’d take that option any time over incarceration in a modern prison, let alone over that floating hulk.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes till the reform of prisons under the Victorians – imprisonment (by sea or land) was a terrible thing.

    The basics of what the Victorians achieved by 1900 (one person per cell, no sexual or other violence among the inmates, ……) would have been considered a wild fantasy in the early 1800’s (or, indeed, TODAY).

    Transportation was dangerious (all long sea transport was dangerious – for free people also). But less dangeriosus than being stuck in an 18th century prison for years or (of course) being hanged.

    Moving is sometimes the least worst option.

    For example, those people who complain that the British government did “nothing” during the Irish blight of the 1840’s (endless BBC television shows and school history books) have got it exactly wrong.

    By having a system of workhouses (the Poor Law was unknown in Ireland before the 19th century) and public works scemes (such as the endless “roads from nowhere to nowhere”) the British government encouraged the Irish to stay – when, with the failure of the basic crop, most Irish people should have left at once.

    By staying and crowding together (in the various schemes) the Irish fell victim to sickness – and died in huge numbers.

    For all the risks of going to America (and so on) – more Irish should have done it, and faster (not waiting till they were so weak to start with).

    “No, no, no – the British government should have fed them all better”.

    How? Crops had failed all over Europe – many people on the mainland of Britain were close to the breadline in the 1840’s.

    The basic farming sytem in much of Ireland (small peasant plots) was an accident waiting to happen – if had not been the blight it would have been something else.

    Scotland (which had the same farming system in much of the Highlands) only avoided mass death because of the (much attacked) “Highland Clearances” of some years before. Had the landlords not moved these people (sometime paying passage to Canada and so on) – they would have died in heaps in the 1840’s.

    “But the landlords did it for their own profit” – perhaps they did, but they did not make a profit.

    Those landlords who introduced sheep (and so on) to the Highlands tended to go bankrupt.

    The truth is that the Highlands is a dreadful place for farming (of any sort) – the soil is thin, and the season short.

    Good for romantic tourists (and game shooting tourists) – and nothing much else.

  • Paul Marks

    Having shown my English (specifically Northamptonshire) bias over what is good farming country and what is not, I had better mention that the reason Irish farming (in much of Ireland) was so dominated by peasant plots – was the endless regulations that had been imposed on the Catholic population by their overlords.

    True the regulations were actually long repealed by the 1840’s – but they had done their evil work.

    Still uncertain (contested) land ownership has been the curse of Ireland for ever (for all its faults at least the Republic is not divided by the question of who owns the land) – that and too much rain.

    Oh yes Alisa – farmers in Israel may regard it as impossible, but it is possible to have too much rain as well as too little.

    Still back to J.P.s post.

    As J.H. de Soto says – the great flaw in Peel’s Act is that it applied only to bank notes, not to cheques and other bills of credit.

    There is a basic rule of reasoning here.

    Borrowing (lending) must never be greater than real savings.

    If there is more lending than real savings – then something is wrong (very wrong), no matter how complex and clever the ways it is done are.

  • PeterT

    Some interesting facts here. Thank you.

    Didn’t Peel also create the Met? One for the ‘bad things’ column.

  • llamas

    While the Reverend Smith’s point had some validity, you only have to read ‘The Fatal Shore’ to know that transportation was not just quite the bed of roses described – certainly not until the transported convict got his or her ticket-of-leave. Transportation to Van Diemen’s Land was especially tough. Essentially the same epigram has been shot off about French convicts transported to the penal colonies of French Guyana – great climate, plenty of opportunity for work and so forth.

    While many transported convicts were indeed hardened criminals, many were most-certainly not. For example, transportation to Australia for 7 years was the fate of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, whose crime was to form a ‘friendly society’, aka a trade union to collectively-bargain for higher wages.



  • Johnathan Pearce

    Peter T, London, before Peel set up the Met, was a highly violent place, and law enforcement was in the hands of magistrates and a few wardens. Otherwise, crime was handled by a mixture of savage, but often unevenly enforced, punishments (dozens of crimes carried the death penalty), and by a local mix of magistrates, of varying levels of vigor and competence.

    Of course, the right to self defence, as under the Common Law, meant that during Peel’s period in the Home Office, there was almost no restriction whatever on things such as weapons and handguns. Joyce Lee Malcolm has argued about how, immediately after the end of the Napoleonic wars, there was a spike in violence (all those unemployed soldiers and sailors coming home), followed by a decline.

    Much of the violence that troubled the ruling establishment at the time -with some reason – was the violence of the “mob”; in the early 19th Century, gangs of people used violence in political and economic protests, such as the Luddite anti-technology riots, the rick-burning violence in the countryside, and so on. That is one of the main reasons why the idea of professional policing won a lot of support, and not just from the rich and powerful.

    When Peel created the Met, he cast it along the sort of lines that most classical liberals could feel comfortable with, including resistence the idea of creating an “officer” corps. The real problem is not that we have police forces; the problem is that the traditional checks and balances of parliament, courts and the Common Law have been eroded, turning the police into what has sometimes been called the armed wing of the Guardian newspaper. That is hardly Peel’s fault.

    He was probably one of the truly great legislators in British history, admittedly not a widely populated demgraphic.

  • Tory anarchist

    “He was probably one of the truly great legislators in British history, admittedly not a widely populated demgraphic.”

    Reminds me of Blackadder’s response to von Richtofen’s reputation as “ze greatest living German”:

    “…considering that his competition consists entirely of very fat men in leather shorts burping to the tune of`She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain’, [it’s] no great achievement.”

  • PeterT

    Thanks Jonathan. No doubt the Met of today is hardly what Peel envisaged. One of the problems of government is of course that it takes on a life of its own and can mutate from something reasonable to something terrible.

    Most policemen are very ill equipped to deal with most crimes thrown their way. I am sure many of them would rather deal with keeping the peace and proper crimes like murder than with trying to enforce the latest unenforcable law passed by populist politicians.

  • @Paul Marks

    “The basic farming system in much of Ireland (small peasant plots) was an accident waiting to happen – if had not been the blight it would have been something else.”

    The something else was the fact that England not only forced exportation of Ireland’s food during the famine, they increased their exports.

  • The proceedings of the Old Bailey covering two and a half centuries are available on line.


    Well worth a dip, to get a taste of what crime and punishment was like.

  • Epictetus

    Peel was a Great, the first, I think, to gain a double first at Oxford.
    As Home Secretary he abolished a swathe of death penalties. He twice changed the direction of the country, Catholic Emancipation and Corn Law repeal, depite fierce opposition from his own party. Eventually brought low by an opportunistic spin doctor by the name of Disraeli.
    The Peel Priciples of policing survived here for more than a century and are still followed by the best coppers and in many of the best societies on earth.
    He was also happily married to one of the most beautiful woman in Europe, had a large family of outstanding children (admiral, VC) and was mourned by the nation on a Dianaesque scale.
    There was a lot of competition for greatness at the time. Gash is good, don’t know about Hurd, but Peel’s published correspondence are a delight.

  • Sunfish

    A personal hero of mine. Okay, not a Marcus Luttrell kind of hero or a Rick Rescorla type of hero, but a friend of mine has a blog where he periodically raves about Newton, and I’ve got about that sort of admiration for Peel.

    As for transportation being kinder and gentler, there is a dissenting point of view.(Link) (As an aside, why is so much Irish music about the English being absolute bastards? I mean, not every country song is about drinking or prison or dying or divorce and not every rap “song” discusses the difficulty or ease of pimping.

  • For another take on transportation, search for “Catalpa Rescue”. Great story about a jailbreak by the Irish, a Yankee whaling ship captain and a little known part of Western Australian history. Nobody got hurt either.
    The Captain, George Anthony, didn’t have a dog in the hunt but when he heard the background, signed on because he felt it was the *right* thing to do.

    My wife and I visited the memorial on the beachfront at Rockingham last January. Beautiful sculpture.

  • Nuke Gray

    If the Irish stopped blaming everything on the British, they might have to accept responsibility for their own lives, and the mess that is the Irish economy. People like having scapegoats. I don’t think that their other near neighbours, the Manxers, on the isle of Man, would fit the roll.
    Here in australia, we compare ourselves favourably with the Kiwis. the only thing they going for them are sheep and films.
    Q. What does a New Zealand man use as a birth control device?
    A. His personality.

  • So, the choice was a free trip to Australia versus having to stay in Britian? Damn right it’s the more merciful option; I’m surprised people wheren’t lining up to steal loves of bread. 😛

    More seriously if the choice is life in a nasty prison boat, or deportation to a foreign mostly empty land with a possibly nasty prison; I’m taking the deportation. Sure the deportation is probably bad, but it seems to me it would be less bad than any overcrowded local prison. I’d probably be trying to find a way to get there anyway as a free citizen.

  • @AMcguinn Interesting historical information

    @Sunfish why is so much Irish music about the English being absolute bastards? Because they were absolute bastards and their cruelty was all encompassing. The English even engineered prison windows so that the cold and damp Irish air would continually flow into the cells.

  • Hard labour in Australia did in most cases undoubtedly mean hard labour, and the journey to Australia was very dangerous, as Paul said. And yes, Australia did indeed have some very nasty prisons (Port Arthur, and also Moreton Bay) where the worst offenders were sent to. But compared to execution or the prison hulks, it was generally a considerable improvement.

    While many transported convicts were indeed hardened criminals, many were most-certainly not.

    A few were not. Most were. If you look at the records in Sydney, this is clear. We Australians have national myths about how the convicts were victims of an unfair system (“he was transported to Australia after his death sentence was commuted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his eleven starving children…..”) but it is largely false.

  • Bill Whittaker

    “why is so much Irish music about the English being absolute bastards? ”

    I have a pretty substantial collection of Irish traditional music , several hundred pieces, both in sheet music and recordings. I don’t think more than 5% mention the British at all. Although I will admit that the anti English songs get more than their share of recording space.
    If you find the songs of rebels and famine tedious you can blame it on contemporary musicians, not Irish music in general.

  • Sunfish,
    Country in the UK is like Mexican food in the UK – lowest common denominator pap. The only place I’ve ever had a decent Mexican meal is the USA. Oddly enough that’s the only place I’ve ever heard Country music I liked. It’s the stereotyping of distance if you will. It’s like the image of Australians as fun-loving rapscallions in beachwear with a tinny of XXXX chucking a prawn on the barbie or American bear as all being Coors Lite. You try explaining to the average Brit about US micro-breweries or that Mexican cuisine isn’t just tacos from Chiquitos (a terrible UK Tex-Mex chain) and you shall not be believed. Yes, even if you say, “But I’ve been there!”

    Now I’m not blaming people for this because it’s what they see. It’s what they are exposed to and stereotypes are just easier D’oh! So I dunno. As Bill, clearly a serious collector says, Irish music entirely being about whiskey and revolution is the stereotype that sticks unless you look deeper as I guess maybe I had the opportunity to with aspects of US culture. I was lucky. I was largely travelling with an American. I didn’t go to Disneyland. Indeed the nearest I got to a tourist trap was New Orleans.

  • The death penalty by public hanging was available for some 220 offences ranging from murder to damaging Westminster Bridge. In reality, there were only about 20 crimes for which people were actually executed and death sentences were frequently reduced to transportation. Hanging, drawing and quartering was still used for traitors up to 1820, although by then was hanging until dead followed by decapitation. Burning at the stake for females convicted of high treason and petty treason (murder of their husband or superiors) was only abolished in 1790. From 1861, in reality only murderers were hanged and from 1868 executions became private.