–History of crime and punishment


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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


Colour key:


Abolition of punishments


Capital Pubishment and its abolition – see Appendix 2 below

Abolition of other punishments  - See Appendix 3 below

Prisons  - see Appendix 6 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30/7/1998, The conviction of Derek Bentley for the murder of a policeman in 1952 was posthumously rescinded; Bentley was hanged in 1953.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.

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.

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.

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.

22/3/1969. Soccer hooligans ran riot on the London Underground, causing thousands of pounds of damage.

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.

18/5/1964, Mods and Rockers clashed at UK south coast resorts.

30/3/1964, Mods and Rockers clashed on the seafront at Clacton.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

1736, In England, statutes against witchcraft were repealed.

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 2 – Capital Punishment and its Abolition

Click here for link to Death Penalty Map. Map of global prevalence of Death Penalty This map indicates the date on which the death penalty was officially abolished for all offences, including military and wartime.  This date is often much later than the time when the death penalty ceased to be used in practice by the courts.


2017, 49% of US citizens supported the death penalty, down from 80% in 1995.

23/7/2014, Joseph Wood, convicted of double murder, took nearly 2 hours to die by lethal injection in an Arizona prison. Questions were raised on the practicality of the death sentence in America.

1/1/1990, Romania abolished the death penalty.

5/9/1984, Western Australia became the last Australian State to abolish capital punishment.

18/11/1981, France formally abandoned the use of the guillotine.

18/9/1981, Under President Mitterrand, France abolished the guillotine and capital punishment.

15/4/1978, The death penalty was abolished in Spain.

10/9/1977. The last official execution by guillotine in France; execution of Hamida Djandoubi. See 17/6/1939.

18/12/1969. The death penalty for murder was formally abolished in Britain.

9/11/1965. The Act legally abolishing capital punishment in the UK came into force. This Act was largely due to the efforts of Sidney Silverman MP.

21/12/1964. The UK Commons voted to end capital punishment.

13/8/1964. The last hangings in Britain took place – the murderers Peter Anthony Allen at Walton Prison, Liverpool, and John Robson Walby at Strangeways Prison, Manchester.

12/10/1961. New Zealand voted to abolish the death penalty.

16/2/1956. The British Parliament voted to end the death penalty.

13/7/1955. Nightclub hostess Ruth Ellis became the last woman hanged, at Holloway Prison in Britain, for the murder of her lover David Blakely, following her conviction on 21/6/1955. However there was public sympathy for her; she claimed someone else put the gun in her hand; and her case was influential in bringing about the abolition of the death penalty in the UK.

12/7/1955, The last hanging at Lincoln Prison. Kenneth Roberts, 24, was executed for the murder of 18-year-old Mary Georgina Roberts in Scunthorpe.

10/2/1955, The House of Commons voted by a majority of 31 to retain the death penalty.

23/9/1953, The Royal Commission on capital punishment said it should be left to the jury as to whether to impose the death penalty.

1/7/1953. MPs rejected a Bill to suspend the death penalty for 5 years.

20/1/1949, Attlee set up a Royal Commission on capital punishment.

12/1/1949. In Britain, Margaret Allen was hanged, the first woman hanged for 12 years.

15/8/1941, Josef Jakobs became the last person to be executed at the Tower of London. A German spy, he had parachuted into Huntingdonshire with a radio transmitter; however he injured his leg in the fall and was captured by the Home Guard. He was tried and shot the same day, in a chair.

17/6/1939. The last public execution in France. The German multiple-murderer, Eugen Wiedman, was publicly guillotined outside Versailles gaol, near Paris. See 25/4/1739 and 10/9/1977.

8/5/1933, The first execution by gas chamber in the US, in Nevada.

15/12/1930, A Commons Select Committee recommended ending the death penalty.

8/5/1921. Sweden abolished capital punishment.

1918, Austria abolished the death penalty.

24/3/1911. Denmark abolished the death penalty.

11/1/1909. Four murderers were publicly guillotined in northern France.

25/1/1902, Russia abolished the death penalty.

1874, Switzerland abolished capital punishment, aalthough individual cantons retained the right to restore it if the murder rate rose.

1870, The Netherlands abolished capital punishment.

26/5/1868, The last public execution in Britain took place outside Newgate Prison. Michael Barrett, the hanged man, had murdered 12 people with a bomb.

21/4/1868, In the UK, a Bill to abolish capital punishment, introduced by Mr Gilpin MP, was defeated by 127 votes to 23.

1864, Romania abolished capital punishment.

16/12/1830, The last ‘hanging at execution dock’ in Britain. This punishment involved hanging of pirates, such as William Kidd in 1701; the convict was then left at low water mark and immersed three times by the tide before being buried.

5/6/1790, Burning at the stake was officially abolished as a form of capital punishment in Britain; see 18/3/1789.

21/1/1790, In Paris, Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotin demonstrated to the National Assembly of Paris a new machine for ‘humane’ executions using a heavy blade falling on the victim’s neck.

18/3/1789, Catherine (Christian) Murphy (Bowman) became the last person in Britain to be executed by burning at the stake (see 5/5/1790). She had been convicted of ‘coining’ (forgery), which was punished severely as a form of treason.

1787, Austria abolished capital punishment.

9/12/1783, The first executions at London’s Newgate Prison.

7/11/1783. The last hanging was held at Tyburn, west London. John Austin, convicted of forgery, was executed.  An estimated 50,000 had been executed at Tyburn.

24/8/1782, David Tyrie, having been found guilty of spying for the French, became the last person in Britain to be executed by hanging, drawing and quartering, at Portsmouth.

5/5/1760. The first hanging by hangman’s drop at Tyburn, London. Earl Ferrers was executed for murdering his valet.

28/7/1716, The last hangings for witchcraft in England; Mary Hicks and her 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth were executed at Huntingdon. The last hanging for witchcraft in Scotland was of Janet Horne, in Dornoch in 1727.

14/5/1650, The UK Parliament voted in favour of the death penalty for adultery but this was never implemented.


Appendix 3 – abolition of other punishments

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.

1871, Flogging in the British Navy in peacetime was suspended.

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.

1853, Transportation of criminals from Britain to Tasmania ceased. 67,000 convicts had been trabsported to Van Diemen’s Land, which was now renamed Tasmania.

1840, Transportation of criminals from Britain to New South Wales ceased. Transportation to Tasmania continued until 1853, and to Western Australia until 1868.

30/6/1837. A British Act of Parliament abolished punishment by pillory.

1809, The last recorded use of the Ducking Stool in England, at Leominster.

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.

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.


Appendix 6 – Prisons

1991, Belmarsh Prison in S E London opened.

1972, Canada finally ceased sterilising convicts in prison.

1/8/1963, The minimum age for prison in the UK was raised to 17.

21/3/1963. Alcatraz, the notorious prison in San Francisco Bay, was closed. It had been a maximum-security prison since 1934.

22/8/1953, The infamous French prison of Devils Island, depicted in the film Papillon, was closed after a century of operations.

1937, Nazi Germany had, by now, forcibly sterilised some 225,000 convicts in prison. An opinion pool in the US this year showed two-thirds of respondents supported this idea, and in the UK Churchill also privately supported the idea.

27/5/1936. The first open prison in Britain was opened at New Hall, near Wakefield, Yorkshire.

11/8/1934, The first batch of prisoners, classified ‘most dangerous’, arrived at the new Alcatraz high-security prison in San Francisco Bay.

1908, In the UK, the Children Act abolished the practice of sending children aged under 14 to prison.

16/10/1902. The first Borstal institution opened, at the village of Borstal near Rochester, Kent.

1/4/1902, The treadmill was abolished in British prisons. It was invented by Sir W Cubitt around 1818. The UK’s Prison Act 1865 specified that every male prisoner aged over 16 sentenced to hard labour should spemd at least 3 months of his sentence on ‘first class labour’ – that is, the treadmill, crank, capstan or stone-breaking. The Prisons Act 1877 reduced this period to one month. A day of such labour consisted of two 3-hour sessions, with a 3 minute break between 15 minutes of work.

1899, The US State of Indiana began forcibly sterilising convicts in prison. By 1941, 36,000 criminals had been sterilised.

11/1890, Millbank Prison, London, closed.

3/11/1870. In Britain, the photographing of every prisoner was made compulsory. A photograph had been successfully used on a ‘wanted’ poster in 1861.

1852, Holloway Prison, London,  for women, opened.

1849, Construction work on Wandsworth Prison began. Male prisoners were first admitted in 1851; female prisoners from 1852.

1845, Crumlin Road prison, Belfast, opened.

1842, Pentonville Prison, north London, opened (closed 1996).

1821, Millbank Prison, London, opened.

1820, Brixton Prison opened, as the Surrey House of Correction.

1806, Construction of Dartmoor Prison began.

1790, The New Bailey Prison, in Salford, Manchester, opened, It closed in 1868.

20/1/1790, John Howard, prison reformer, died.

21/5/1780. Elizabeth Fry, prison reformer, was born in Norwich. She was the daughter of a Quaker banker, John Gurney.

1218, Newgate Prison, London, opened.

1166, In Britain, the Assize of Clarendon ordered jails to be constructed in all English counties and boroughs.

250 BCE, The first Roman prison erected, at Tullianum.


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