Law and Order

As William Ashworth observed,

Every man of property was affected by the multiplication of thieves; Overcrowding and congestion, poverty, crime, ill health and heavy mortality were shown to be conditions commonly found together. It was the changed scale of things that gave to an old problem the appearance of something new.' William Ashworth. The Genesis of Modern British Town Planning, 1954, from The Victorian City, Images and Reallities vol 1

The fear was exacerbated by the popular 'broadsides' of the time whose staple fare were accounts of crime. Illustrations showed felons hanging from the gallows and verses supposedly written by the condemned man, or woman circulated freely.

The Victorian City; Images and Realities, Dyos and Wolff (1973)

Professional criminals needed isolation; a bolt hole with a back entrance and the rookeries provided these

'they are not only the haunts where pauperism recruits its strength -not only the lurking-places, but the nurseries of felons' The Rookeries of London Thomas Beames 1850.

A scene much like this one from Punch occured in Dickens's Oliver Twist,

'The aperture was so small that the inmates had probably not thought it worth while to defend it more securely, but it was large enough to admit a boy of Oliver's size, nevertheless'.

'Now listen, you young limb,' whispered Sikes, drawing a dark lantern from his pocket and throwing the glare full on Oliver's face, 'I'm a-going to put you through there.'


It was the Home Secretary Robert Peel who first established an organised police force in 1829 with authority vested in two Commissioners. Its headquarter was in Great Scotland Yard a street off Whitehall. Its civilian rather than military authority was emphasised by its uniform of blue trousers and a (reinforced) top hat, and there was considerable disquiet later in 1860 when the tail coat and top hat were replaced by a tunic and helmet. The civilian character has been maintained up to the present day. Constables carried a rattle instead of the modern whistle and a truncheon.

Inspector Charles F. Field, a member of the Detective Force. He conducted Dickens through some of the worst London slums and was the original of Inspector Bucket. The Dickens Encyclopedia, Hayward (1924)

A detective force was formed in 1842 and it was this which thirty and more years later, in 1878, developed into the now familiar C.I.D. Detective Bucket in Bleak House was an early example of the breed.

When transportation to New South Wales was stopped in 1840 the Hulks moored off Woolwich were insufficient to contain all the prisoners and many were released. London was full of ex-prisoners, and some of them formed garrotting gangs who operated in teams of three -a 'front stall', a 'back stall' and a 'nasty man'. Although they began at night they were soon operating by day and then as now people were afraid to leave their homes and the police were blamed for inactivity. Civil disorder resulted in the same sort of battles between police and rabbles of demonstrators with which we are still familiar. Then as now, the demonstrators threw missiles at the traffic, and then as now the police were blamed.

It was very easy to find yourself imprisoned in mid nineteenth century London. Until the 1850s boys of eight were regularly sent to prison and they were often 'old lags' by the time they were twelve. When the census was taken in 1851 there were over six thousand prisoners in London's gaols. More crime meant more prisons. The initial response had been to press old ships of the line into service, as hulks. It was one such hulk from which Magwich escaped to terrify the young Pip in Great Expectations. It is ironic that in the late twentieth century the British Government should again be using moored ships as prisons.

Prison Hulks off Woolwich. Engraving in Mayhew and Binny's Crimianl prisons of London,(1862), London Museum, from London 1808-1870, The Infernal Wen, Francis Sheppard (1971).

The older prisons like Newgate continued to provide some space but gradually new prisons were built with Government funds. The first of these, in 1821, was the National Penitentiary at Millbank by the Thames. It is true that, unlike the position in our own time these prisoners were each housed in a separate cell, but this was not as humane a provision as it might appear. Its object was to isolate prisoners from each other and to impose silence. The next government prison Pentonville worked toward deepening this sense of isolation, when prisoners left their cells they were obliged to wear hoods with slits to prevent them from communicating with each other. At Coldbath Fields the work imposed on prisoners was deliberately senseless and routine, picking oakum in supervised silence, treadmills which prisoners called 'treading the wind'. At Pentonville prisoners might work in their cells, turning a crank handle for eight hours a day. Treatment of this sort not infrequently resulted in madness. Debtors were imprisoned separately in the Fleet, the Queen's Bench and the Marshalsea where they simply remained until their creditors were paid. In Little Dorrit Little Nell's father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea. The turnkey refers to him as 'the Father of the Marshalsea'.

He brought in a portmanteau with him, which he doubted it being worth while to unpack; he was so perfectly clear - like all the rest of them, the turnkey on the lock said - that he was going to get out directly. 'Out?' said the turnkey, 'he'll never get out. Unless his creditors take him by the shoulders and shove him out'. Little Dorrit

The Millbank Penitentiary. This site is now occupied by the Tate Gallery. Cassell's large-scale map of London c.1867, from The London Doré Saw, Eric de Maré (1973)
The Marshalsea Gaol. The Dickens Encyclopedia, Hayward (1924)
Dormitory at the House of Correction, Coldbath-Fields. Illustrated Times, xii 1861, from The Victorian City: Images and Realities, Dyos and Wolff (1973)
Crank labour at Surrey House of Correction. Engraving in Mayhew and Binny's Criminal Prisons of London, 1862. London Museum, from London 1808-1870: The Infernal Wen, Francis Sheppard (1971)
Oakum Room at Coldbath Fields Prison. Engraving in Mayhew and Binny's Criminal Prisons of London. 1862. London Museum, from London 1808-1870: The Infernal Wen, Francis Sheppard (1971)

'We went over the House of witness the operation of the silent system; and looked on all the "wheels" with the greatest anxiety, in search of our long-lost friend'. Sketches by Boz

Tread-wheel, Coldbath Fields in Mayhew and Binny's Criminal Prisons of London, 1862. London Museum, from London 1808-1870: The Infernal Wen, Francis Sheppard (1971)

Newgate which stood on the site of what is now the Central Criminal Court or the Old Bailey, had been the preferred site for public executions since the end of the eighteenth century. Until public execution was abolished in 1868, it provided excellent facilities for watching the proceedings. Those who could afford to, paid up to fifty guineas to hire rooms with windows which overlooked the place of execution. It is Newgate which witnesses the execution of Fagin in Oliver Twist,

A great multitude had already assembled; the windows were filled with people, smoking and playing cards to beguile the time. Everything told of life and animation, but one dark cluster of objects and in the very centre of all -the black stage, the cross beam, the rope, and all the hideous apparatus of death.

Newgate Gaol, entrance.B.T.Batsford Ltd, The Victorian City: Images and Realities, Dyos and Wolff (1973)
Newgate Gaol, exerecise yard. The London Doré Saw, Eric de Maré (1973)

Fagin awaiting execution in one of the condemned cells in Newgate.

'It was very dark; why didn't they bring a light?' 'The condemned criminal was seated on his bed, rocking himself from side to side, with a countenance more like that of a snared beast than the face of a man'. Oliver Twist.

The crowds gathered outside Newgate Gaol to watch a public execution. The Dickens Encyclopedia, Hayward (1924)