History of crime and punishment
Page last modified 18/6/2020
If you have ten thousand regulations you destroy all respect for the law – Winston Churchill
The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be – Lao Tsu
The Law, in its grand equality, forbids both the rich and the poor to sleep under bridges, to steal bread and beg on the streets - Anatole France
“Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.” Jonathan Swift
See also Prisons
See also Capital Punishment
Abolition of punishments - See Appendix 1 below
For changes in the legal prosecution and punishment of minors, see Morals
4/7/2014, Former entertainer Rolf Harris, 84, was sentenced to 5 years 9 months for sexual crimes against children in the 1970s and 80s.
27/1/2010, The first criminal trial without a jury for 400 years opened in London.
18/2/2005, In England and Wales, hunting with dogs became illegal.
4/6/2000. In the UK, the Conservative opposition announced plans whereby they would have prisoners work full-time whilst in jail in order to pay compensation to their victims.
30/7/1998, The conviction of Derek Bentley for the murder of a policeman in 1952 was posthumously rescinded; Bentley was hanged in 1953.
26/8/1996. The courts in Sweden heard their first ever case of dangerous handling of a shopping trolley.
11/1994, Britain passed the Criminal Justice Act (1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act). The Act contaoined a wide range of mesasures which generally ‘got tougher’ with criminals, and was promoted by the Conservative Home Secretary, Michael Howard. Civil Liberties groups were concerned about the erosion of a suspects ‘right to silence’, which could now be treated by the Court as inferring guilt. A new offence of ‘aggravated trespass’ was created, a DNA database of offenders was set up, and the age of homosexual consent lowered from 21 to 18.
1993, The US State of Washington passed the countrty’s first ‘three strikes’ law. California followed in 1994.
3/10/1989, The Shetland Island of Foula was shocked by its first crime in over 80 years. A Land Rover had been vandalised; a 17-year-old was later convicted and fined £50.
17/8/1989. Richard Hart, accused of theft, became Britain’s first electronically tagged suspect and was allowed home.
1988, In Britain, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 allowed the Attorney General to refer cases to the Court of Appeal if it appeared that sentencing had been unduly lenient.
27/5/1988, In Canada, a man who ‘sleepwalked’, drove over to his mother’s house and killed her with an iron bar, was acquitted of murder.
13/11/1987. The first criminal conviction based on genetic fingerprinting saw a rapist sentenced to 8 years at Bristol Crown Court.
1985, In Britian, the Crown Prosecution Service was established.
23/10/1984. The Police Federation in Britain said that from now all Police Forces in England and Wales should be equipped with plastic bullets.
1974, The Police National Computer at Hendon became operational. Set up in 1969, it stored information from the UK’s 800 police stations.
1971, In the UK, the old Assize Courts were abolished by he Courts Act 1971. The Assize Courts were presided over by High Court judges, who travelled on ‘Circuit’; they dated from ther reign of King Henry II.
5/10/1967, The first majority verdict was recorded in a UK court, 10 to 2, at Brighton Quarter Sessions.
21/7/1967, Majority verdicts were now allowed in UK courts.
18/10/1966. The hanged Timothy Evans won a posthumous Royal Pardon, see 15/7/1953.
1964, In Britain the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board was set up to award state funded compensation to victims of violent crime. Damages to property was not covered.
1964, In the UK, the Police Act reduced the number of police forces from 117 to 49; an earlier 1946 Police Act had removed 45 smaller constabularies. Joint crime and traffic squads were set up, and complaints had to be investigated by an officer from a different force.
18/5/1964, Mods and Rockers clashed at UK south coast resorts.
30/3/1964, Mods and Rockers clashed on the seafront at Clacton.
1963, The US Supreme Court, in Gideon v Wainwright, ruled that poor criminal defendants had a right to a lawyer. However no provision was made for paying for this legal advice, leading to prisoners being sent legal bills.
30/8/1958, The police clashed with 500 ‘Teddy Boys’ in Nottingham.
28/5/1955, 16 Teddy Boys were arrested after a disturbance at a dance hall in Bath.
6/5/1954, Sir David Maxwell-Fylde, British Home Secretary, said the problem of Teddy Boys was not widespread.
2/10/1953. The photograph of William Pettit, wanted for murder, was shown on the BBC by request from the police. It was the first time TV was used in Britain to help find a wanted man.
15/7/1953, John Christie was hanged ( see 25/3/1953) one day after a government tribunal maintained that Timothy Evans was rightly convicted of murdering his wife at Christie’s house and hanged for the crime. Christie had been convicted of murder on 25/6/1953; three years earlier Christie had been key witness against Evans. After Christie’s conviction, Evans’ family asked for a judicial review. See 18/10/1966.
28/1/1953, Derek Bentley was hanged at Wandsworth Prison, see 11/12/1952.
11/12/1952, Derek Bentley, 19, was sentenced to death for the murder of a policeman, even though his accomplice Christopher Craig, 16, fired the fatal shot. The incident occurred during a bungled robbery in which police surrounded the pair on the roof of a Croydon warehouse. Craig was too young to hang and was detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Bentley had shouted to Craig “Let him have it”; did he mean ‘shoot him’ or ‘let him have the gun’?
2/11/1952, The Croydon Rooftop Murder took place. Two illiterate young men, Christopher Craig (16) and Derek Bentley (18, almost 19) were seen breaking into a confectionery warehouse. The police were called and Bentley was arrested almost immediately. When the police moved to arrest Craig he pulled out a gun; Bentley, then under arrest, shouted at Craig “Let him have it!” Craig then shot two policemen, one fatally. Craig was too young to hang, and got life imprisonment; Bentley was sentenced to death. Many thought that Bentley too should have got life, as, firstly, he had been under arrest when the fatal shot was fired, and secondly, the doubt surrounding Bentley’s motive in what he said; did he mean ‘let him have a bullet’ or ‘give him the gun’? The jury recommended mercy in Bentley’s case. However executing Bentley satisfied a general sense of revenge for the death of the policeman, and was supported by the Home Secretary.
18/1/1934. British police made their first arrest using pocket radios. They caught a thief in Brighton three minutes after he had stolen three overcoats from a shop.
4/5/1932, The mob leader Al Capone began his prison sentence for tax evasion.
1927, Police in Britain began using 2-way radio cars. Personal radios for police on the beat were introduced in 1965.
1921, Police in Britain began using motorcycle patrols.
13/8/1915, George Joseph Smith, the infamous ‘Brides in the Bath’ murderer, was hanged by John Ellis at Maidstone Prison. Smith had ‘married’ three different women, then murdered them to claim on life insurance policies or gain their fortunes.
23/11/1910, The American Dr Hawley Crippen was hanged in London’s Pentonville Prison for the murder of his wife,
22/10/1910. American born Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen was convicted at the Old Bailey of poisoning his wife Belle Elmore. The trial began on 18/10/1910. Born in Michigan, USA, Crippen achieved notoriety as a poisoner. He graduated from Michigan University, and married. He then moved to England where he worked as a dentist and medicine salesman. After a party at his home in Holloway, London, on 31/1/1910, he poisoned his wife. The police began inquiries after he brought a young typist, Ethel Le Neve, to live in the house. The couple fled, and the remains of Crippen’s wife Belle were found in the cellar on 14/7/1910. Crippen was caught after the captain of the ocean liner Montrose radioed a message about two suspicious passengers to Scotland Yard. He was arrested on SS Montrose on 31/7/1910, with Ethel dressed as a boy. He was charged on 29/8/1910. This was the first time radio had been used to track down a criminal. Crippen was hanged on 23/11/1910 at Pentonville Prison, still protesting his innocence.
29/8/1910, Dr Crippen was charged with murder.
31/7/1910, The murderer Dr Crippen was arrested aboard the SS Montrose just before docking in Quebec. He was the first criminal to be captured by the use of wireless.
31/1/1910, Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen poisoned his wife Belle Elmore, music hall singer, then cut her in small pieces and buried her in the cellar. See 22/10/1910. Telling suspicious friends of Elmore that she had gone to America, Dr Crippen brought secretary Ethel Le Neuve, 27, into his house as his lover. See 22/10/1910.
1907, Until 1907 there was no appeal possible against criminal conviction in the English legal system. In this year the Court of Criminal Appeal was instituted by Act of Parliament.
1903, In the UK, the Poor Prisoners Defence Act established the first legal aid scheme.
1903, The Pistols Act in Britain banned sales of handguns to people under 18 or those ‘drunken or insane’.
13/9/1902. Britain’s first conviction on fingerprint evidence was obtained by the Metropolitan Police in a case at the Old Bailey against Harry Jackson.
1873, The English Court system was reformed. Until now it had consisted of; 1) The Court of King’s (Queen’s) Bench. This dealt with criminal cases, and was originally presided over by the King (Queen) himself, sitting on a raised Bench. 2) The Court of Exchequer, which dealt primarily with cases involving royal or public revenues. 3) The Court of Common Pleas, dealing with property disputes between private citizens. 4) The High Court of Chancery, which decided cases ‘in equity’ that is, cases where the law needed modification or interpretation to avoid injustice. In 1873 these Courts were brought together as the High Court of Justice. Along with the Court of Appeal this formed the Supreme Court of Judicature. The High Court now comprised three Divisions; Chancery, Kings Bench and Probate, Divorce and Admiralty. Equity cases come under Chancery. See also 1907.
2/11/1871, In Britain, systematic photographing of convicted prisoners began. This was the start of the ‘rogue’s gallery’.
1856, In Britain the County and Borough Police Act complelled all boroughs and counties to set up police forces.
1853, Transportation to Tasmania, Australia, ceased.
1834, London’s Central Criminal Court, popularly known as the Old Bailey, was established; it now stands on the site of Newgate Prison
1833, In Britain, the Lighting and Watching Act allowed any town with population exceeding 5,000 to appoint paid watchmen.
29/9/1829, London police went on duty for the first time. See 1748.
1823, Persons found to have committed suicide in England were no longer to be subject to the ignominy of burial on the public highway, with a stake through the body. They could now be buried normally, between the hours of 9pm and midnight, but without Christian ritual. In 1882 a further legal reform permitted their burial in a churchyard, with a special form of Christian service, not the regular burial rites. Meanwhile the custom of forfeiture by the Crown of a suicide’s goods and chattels (but not their land) was abolished by the Forfeiture Act 1870.
5/2/1788, Sir Robert Peel, British Tory Prime Minister and founder of the Metropolitan Police Force, was born at Bury in Lancashire, the son of a cotton millionaire.
26/1/1788, The first batch of British convicts arrived at Sydney Cove, Australia. They came aboard the HMS Endeavour, captained by Arthur Phillip; 570 men and 160 women were the survivors of a 36-week voyage from England on which the pox had killed 48 of the prisoners. Captain Phillip was to administer the penal colony. See 18/1/1788.
See Australia, New Zealand, for exploration of Australia
18/1/1788 A penal settlement was established at Botany Bay, Australia. The first convicts arrived on 26/1/1788. The option of sending its prisoners to America was no longer open to Britain.
13/5/1787, A fleet of 11 ships consisting of 2 two men 3 stores ships, and 6 convict transporters with some 730 convicts set sail from England for Australia under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip. The journey lasted until January 1788. The convicts disembarked at Sydney Cove, minus 40 who had died on the voyage.
1748, The Bow Street Runners were established by Henry Fielding, a magistrate at Bow Street. They were both police and detective force, a precursor to the first London police force established on 29/9/1829.
1736, In England, statutes against witchcraft were repealed.
1617, Denmark made ‘diabolism’ a crime.
1562, Witchcraft was made a capital offence in England.
1532, The Holy Roman Empire passed a law authorising the death penalty for practising black magic.
24/10/1513, In England, clergymen who committed murder were no longer exempt from punishment.
1275, In England, the accused could not betried unless they chose to undergo one. Because many would not, this year by Statute the accused was subject to ‘prison forte et dure’ until they did chose to stand trial. Many died in prison because of this; however because they had not been convicted, their property did not become forfeit to the Crown. This right by the accused not to be tried endured until the 1700s.
621 BCE, Draco, an Athenian lawgiver, drew up a code of laws that set out severe pinishments for theft, sacrilege and even laziness, which could be punished with death. Hence the term ‘draconian’ for any severe or harsh law today.
1750 BCE, The Laws of Hammurabi, King of Babylon, were set out. If a commoner destroyed the eye of a Babylonian noble, his own eye was to be put out; if a noble put out a commoner’s eye, he was only fined. Theft from a burning building and adultery were punished gy death, and a son who struck his father, or a surgeon who botched an operation, had their hands cut off. The Code also set out wage rates for labourers and craftsmen, and for hiring oxen.
Appendix 1 – abolition of punishments
1961, Suicide ceased to be a criminal offence in Britain, meaning that failed suicide attempts no longer led to prosecution.
1955, In Britain, Ruth Ellis became the last woman to be executed.
1948, The UK’s Criminal Justice Act 1948 abolished the right of the Courts to impose corporal punishment,
20/4/1905, The pillory was abolished in the US State of Delaware.
1899, In the USA, Martha Place became the first woman to be executed hy electric chair.
1890, First use of the electric chair for execution in the USA. William Kemmler was executed.
1881, Flogging in the British Army was abolished (although caning in military prisons was still permitted).
1879, The British Royal Navy abolished the ‘Cat’o’Nine Tails’ (a whip made of nine knotted ropes) as punishment. This form of penalty was first mentioned in around 1700.
11/6/1872, The stocks were last used as an official form of punishment in Britain. Their last recorded use was at Adpar, west Wales. They had also been used in 1865 at Rugby, 1863 at Tavistock and 1858 at Colchester. Their introduction in England appears to have been around the late 14th century. The Second Statute of Labourers Act, 1350, made provision for their use on ‘unruly artificers’, and in 1376 the House of Commons asked King Edward II for the establishment of stocks in every village.
1871, Flogging in the British Navy in peacetime was suspended.
1870, In Britain, the property of suicides ceased to ber confiscated by the State.
1870, In Britain, hanging drawing and quartering was abolished.
5/8/1861, Flogging in the US Navy in peacetime was abolished.
13/7/1860, The last naval execution at the yardarm took place, aboard the HMS Leven in the River Yantse The victim was Private John Dallinger.
1856, Last recorded use of the ‘Scold’s Bridle;, in Bolton le Moors, Lancashire.
1853, Transportation of criminals from Britain to Tasmania ceased. 67,000 convicts had been transported to Van Diemen’s Land, which was now renamed Tasmania.
30/6/1837. A British Act of Parliament abolished punishment by pillory. In France the pillory (carcan) was abolished in 1832, but in the US this punishment was on the statute books until 1839, and one pillory survived in Delaware unti1905.
25/7/1834, The British Parliament passed an Act formally abolishing ‘hanging in chains’. This was a practice once reserved for the most heinous murderers; after execution, their bodies were hung in chains in a gibbet near the scene of their crime. The purpose was two-fold; to deter similar crimes, and to comfort the relatives of the victim. The last recorded use of ‘hanging in chains’ was in Scotland in 1755, of a Mr Andrew Wilson, who had poisoned his wife.
24/6/1830, Peter Bossey became the last person to be sentenced to the pillory. He was sentenced at the Old Bailey to 6 months in prison, 1 hour in the Old Bailey’s pillory, and 7 year’s transportation to Australia.
1829, Branding with hot irons was abolished in Britain. Branding was still carried out for deserters from the British Army, but by tattooing with ink or gunpowder the letter D; the British Mutiny Act 1858 specified that this letter was to be 2 inches below the armpit, and not less than I inch long. Notgoriously bad soldiers could also be marked with the letters BD, for Bad Character. In 1879 all such ‘branding’ was abolished.
1827, Breaking on the wheel was abolished in Germany.
4/8/1826, The last set of stocks in London was taken down. They had been at St Clement Danes, in The Strand.
1824, The Scold’s Bridle was last used in Britain.
1817, The last sentence in Britain to the Ducking Stool. However the water level in the pond at Leominster was too low to immerse the victim anyway, so the victim, Sarah Leeke, was merely whee;ed round the town in the ducking stool. The last actual duckings were of Mrs Gamble of Plymouth in 1808 and of Jenny Pipes, a ‘notorious scold in 1809, also of Leominster.
1809, The last recorded use of the Ducking Stool in England, at Leominster.
5/6/1790, Burning at the stake was officially abolished as a form of capital punishment in Britain; see 18/3/1789.
1789, Torture ceased to be part of the French juducial system.
1787, Transportation to Australia began, from Britain.
1772, The punishment of pressing to death with heavy weights was abolished as penalty for refusing to plead (or for challenging more than 20 jurors). In 1275 the Statute of Westminster laid down the punishment of ‘strong and hard’ imprisonment for a defendant who refused to plead either guilty or innocent; until they pleaded, they could not be tried. In 1406 the punishment of pressing to death was instituted instead. After 1772 ‘standing mute’ was deemed equivalent to a guilty plea, but in 1827 no pleas was considered as equivalent to pleading innocent. 1741, Cambridge Assizes, was the last actual usage of pressing to death.
1735, The last execution in Britain by being pressed to death took place in Horsham.
1726, The last recorded case of burning alive in England as a means of execution. A woman was put to death this way for pety-treason (the act of murdering someone to whom one owes allegiance, in this case, her husband). Burning of women for similar cases of petty treason continued until ca. 1790 (one such woman was ‘executed’ this was at Ipswich in 1783; however the victim was strangled first.
1727, The last burning of a witch in Scotland took place, at Dornoch.
1685, The last execution by drowning in Scotland (the Wigtown martyrs). In England drowning as a means of execution had ceased by the 1620s; however in France the last such execution was in 1793 at Nantes.
5/1640, The last use of torture as part of the English judicial system.
1563, Legislation against witchcraft was passed in both England and Scotland. Previously, witchcraft was seen as bad (maleficium), putting a spell on someone, or as good (cunning) healing a person. Now however the Church started to take a harder line on witchcraft, emphasising the practice as demonological and anti-Christian. Executions of witches rose to a paek in the mid 1600s, then declined; the last execution for witchcraft in England was in Devon in 1685. The last trial for witchcraft in England was in 1712. In 1736 the Statutes against witchcraft were repealed in both England and Scotland, as the practice was now seen as merely a popular superstition, and was hard to prove. Scientific advances were also promoting a more secular, less Biblical, line of thinking.
1547, In England, the punishment of boiling alive was abolished.
28/3/1542, In England, Margaret Davy was boiled to death. This rare punishment was inflicted for her committing murder by poisoning.
1531, In England, a law made boiling alive the punishment for poisoning.
1401, In England, a law made burning alive the punishment for heresy.
1215, The Catholic Church in Europe decreed that trial by ordeal at the Fourth Lateran Council (for example by ducking the suspect underwater and seeing if God preserved their life, if so they were innocent) was too superstitious. This decree led to the emergence of modern trial by jury.
337 AD, Crucifixition was abolished in the Roman Empire.