Scales of justice: A look at how 19th century punishment compares to today's convictions

Joseph Hartshorn

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MUGSHOTS of prisoners held at Oxford’s jail in the 19th century have revealed a fascinating insight into crime and punishment.

Former prison turned visitor attraction Oxford Castle has released the pictures and details of convicted criminals who served time at the gaol.

They reveal how teenagers caught stealing bread were sentenced to 21 days in prison, and how embezzling £18 would land you 12 months of hard labour.

Meanwhile, a woman convicted of unlawful wounding – a more serious offence under today’s laws – was awarded a comparatively light seven days’ hard labour. Today, those caught stealing from a shop might receive a conditional discharge or fine, while those convicted of theft in breach of trust – the modern equivalent of embezzlement – could get off with a fine. Oxford Castle duty manager and former tour guide Joseph Hartshorn said: “You get a sense of the community of Oxford and the different people that made it up.”

Those sentenced to hard labour at the gaol could expect to spend up to eight hours a day carrying out pointless backbreaking tasks, such as pulling apart hemp rope – the idea being to keep inmates demoralised and easy to control. The amount of time spent doing these tasks depended on the whims of guards. Mr Hartshorn said theft was taken particularly seriously because of food shortages.

He said: “There are tunnels going from the Covered Market to some of the pubs around it. The reason isn’t ease of movement, but because if you need to transport a big chunk of ham you are liable to get mugged.” Julia Ann Crumpling, at age seven, was the youngest person ever held in the jail. She was given seven days of hard labour for stealing a pram in Witney.

Mr Hartshorn said: “Really it sounds like she was just being a seven-year-old girl, somebody turned her in and she got seven days for that.” Anne-Marie Kilday, professor of criminal history at Oxford Brookes University , said the sentence would have been uncommon for one so young and added she could have been from a criminal family or was up to no good for a second or third time.

She said: “Something like that would have usually been a telling off.” Prof Kilday said a focus on property and status led to a much higher emphasis on financial crime and the scaremongering of the burgeoning media also contributed to tough sentences. She said: “The jury’s still out on whether it acted as a deterrent. “I think the poor stole when they were hungry, regardless of deterrent, because they were desperate.”

While today’s courts see numerous cases of acquisitive crime, addicts stealing to fuel their addiction, she said addiction was not used as a defence in the 19th century.

Visitors to Oxford Castle can now get their own period ‘mugshot’ labelling them with a notorious crime.

Now and then...

  • A 34-year-old man from Bicester was given an 18-week jail sentence, suspended for 12 months, after stealing several bicycles.
  • A 24-year-old man, who admitted unlawful wounding in Ascott-under-Wychwood, was given a 12-month term, suspended for two years, and ordered to carry out 100 hours of unpaid work.
  • A 52-year-old shoplifter from Oxford was given a 12-month conditional discharge and a 35-year-old burglar in Wantage was ordered to pay £1,890 compensation, plus court costs.

Comments (1)

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12:40pm Wed 29 Aug 12

Severian says...

My wife's great grandfather got a week in jail in the late 1800s for being drunk in charge of a horse. And one of her ancestors in the early 1800s got 2 years' hard labour for stealing 4 empty sacks from the mill where he worked - he had his sentenced reduced to just 2 years because of his previous good character!

These days the sentences would have been a small fine, and a conditional discharge respectively.
My wife's great grandfather got a week in jail in the late 1800s for being drunk in charge of a horse. And one of her ancestors in the early 1800s got 2 years' hard labour for stealing 4 empty sacks from the mill where he worked - he had his sentenced reduced to just 2 years because of his previous good character! These days the sentences would have been a small fine, and a conditional discharge respectively. Severian
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