Victorian Crime and Punishment

The streets in Victorian Britain were often narrow and poorly lit. Some people thought that poor people were poor through laziness and the government rarely did anything to help them. Some poor people saw a life of crime as the only way of surviving. Large towns often had many pickpockets and thieves and some of these ‘criminals’ were children.

‘Criminal’ children could be given the same punishments as adults. This meant boys as young as ten were punished by deportation to Australia. The voyage from Britain to Australia could take up to five months and one in every 100 prisoners died on the trip. The deportations stopped in the 1850s.

In some places people could be fined for things like having snowball fights or throwing an orange peel in the street.

Criminals were still hanged in public until 1868 and after that prisoners were executed inside prisons. A black flag was raised over the prison to show the sentence had been carried out.

There were not enough prisons in Victorian Britain to hold all the criminals, so medieval castles were often turned into prisons. Many criminals were kept in floating prisons called ‘hulks’. The hulks were rotting old wooden ships that were filthy, dark and crowded.

People who misbehaved in prison were punished with the crank. This meant turning a stiff handle on a machine up to 1,000 times without stopping. This was a very painful exercise.

The government minister Sir Robert Peel created Britain’s first police force in London in 1829. They were called ‘Peelers’ or ‘Bobbies’ after him. Policemen wore black top hats that were strong enough to stand on. They used them to see over walls. The rest of Britain didn’t have a police force until 1856.

The Victorians were fascinated by crime and many read detective stories like Sherlock Holmes. The author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, lived in Hindhead in Surrey between 1897 and 1907. During this time he wrote his most famous story, The Hound of the Baskervilles.


Guildford Union Work House, 1838. SHC ref PX/72/610.

Guildford Union Work House, 1838. SHC ref PX/72/610.

Workhouses were places for the poor, old, orphaned or mentally ill who could not afford to support themselves. They were made to work in terrible conditions in return for food and shelter.

Family members were separated and lived in different dormitories. They were forbidden from speaking to each other. Some workhouses didn’t even have beds – the people who lived there were given blankets and had to sleep on the cold floor. Many Victorians thought that the poor had no money because they were lazy and needed to be taught the value of hard work.

The workhouse, Bletchingley. SHC ref 7828/2/18/247

The workhouse, Bletchingley. SHC ref 7828/2/18/247.

There were workhouses built in Surrey at Farnham, Chertsey, Bletchingley, Reigate and Hambledon. Guildford Workhouse had such bad problems with overcrowding that in 1895 the decision was made to build a new ward. This was completed in 1905 and became known as The Spike.

Every day would start with a prayer, breakfast and work. They would then pray again before eating lunch. After lunch the adults would go back to work whilst the kids went to school. The day would end with dinner and prayer before bed. Some workhouses also had time for exercise.

The food in workhouses was very plain and you would only get given a small amount. Gruel and soup were common meals in a workhouse as well as bread and butter. In some workhouses they would have to eat with their hands as there weren’t any knives or forks and they would have to eat in silence.

There were also ‘working schools’ for orphans where they received accommodation and an education. There were only a limited number of places. The schools were run by a board of governors who would vote to decide which orphans should be allowed to enter the school. Only children from ‘respectable’ families were considered.

The history of the workhouse by Peter Higginbotham

Links to related pages

Link to the Victorians page
Link to the Victorian Activities page
Link to the A Few Famous and Interesting People in Victorian Surrey page
Link to the Life in Victorian Times page
Link to the Victorian Childhood page
Link to the Victorian Industry and Technology page