Victorian Criminal Laws: Barbarism and Progress

Mass hanging in England
Long before television…
There is a law—a real, actual law—that existed in England until 1823: if a court adjudged a man to have committed suicide, his corpse had to be buried at a crossroads, with a stake through its heart. His family was forbidden to mourn.

When the British Parliament finally concluded that this practice was not so much sensible government policy as a deranged intrusion upon private tragedies, the child who would become Queen Victoria was three years old.  She took the throne a little more than a decade afterward.  When she had been upon it for twelve years, there was another remarkable judicial spectacle; in 1849 thirty thousand people gathered in London to watch the public execution, by hanging, of a husband and his wife.

When people learn that I write a series of mystery novels set in Victorian London, they often have a specific picture in mind of what society was like then: civil, rigid, conservative. Gentlemen ate beefsteak in their clubs along Pall Mall and women spent their days silently ruing the amount of crinoline they had to wear.

That aspect of Victorian England did, of course, exist. There was a remarkable formality of manners. Just to provide one example, Trollope writes of a woman: “She had been educated at a time when easy-chairs were considered vicious, and among people who regarded all easy postures as being so; and she could still boast, at 76, than she had never leaned back.”

Because of details like this it is easy to think of the era as one of overwhelming resistance to change, a time caught in amber, before the tremendous upheaval of World War I inaugurated a century, the last, whose only constant was change itself.  But that is wrong. In fact, behind its veneer of starched respectability, the Victorian era was one that introduced more change to England than perhaps there had been since the time of the Tudors.  That public execution in 1849, for example—by 1868 that would be against the law. 

The Reform Act of 1832, and many subsequent laws in a similar vein, wrested a tremendous amount of power from the House of Lords—the King threatened to “pack the House,” making thousands of new Lords if the chamber wouldn’t comply with the will of the House of Commons—and thereby placed it in the hands of the people. By the time of my fictional hero, Charles Lenox, people were seriously beginning to doubt the morality of children working in factories, and had also started to vaguely suspect that there might be some value in elementary education.  As an example: in 1871 nearly a quarter of all the people who were married in England could only sign their name as an “X” in the parish registry, but after a series of new laws requiring children to go to school a certain number of days out of each year (fewer for farmers’ children) those rates of illiteracy plunged.

Queen Victoria
Queen for far more than a day.
This coupling of barbarism and progress defines the Victorian era.  It was a sort of bridge between the final shore of the middle ages and the rocky outcroppings of the modern. It had bankers in suits, going downtown in order to manipulate currency; and less than a mile away, essentially side-by-side, it had a thriving and vile industry of human-waste collection.  (Read a history of cholera if you ever want to shatter your illusions about the gentility of Victorian England.)

Fifty-two years after that public execution, seven-eight years after the law about suicides came off the books, in 1901—which seems fitting if you’re numerologically inclined—Queen Victoria died.  By then there were electric buses in the streets of New York City.  The mother of the current Queen, Elizabeth, was one year old.  And within fifteen years women all across England would begin to do something that the vast majority of men, at Victoria’s birth, couldn’t have: vote. What an evolution!  And because of that it seems fair to me to say that to whatever degree our world has become more fair and less bloodthirsty in the last century—and unfortunately the past few decades have seen troubling reversions in both those forms of progress—we owe the Victorians some of the credit for the change.

The next time you’re reading a book and a Marquess asks a vicar if he wants more tea, think of that.

Charles Finch is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries, including The Fleet Street Murders, The September Society and A Stranger in Mayfair. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. He lives in Oxford, England.


  1. Carmen Pinzon

    Great article! I’ve always thought that overly refined and strict cultures hide a seething current social change. I remember reading a book on the ’50’s that commented on how that decade birthed the ’60’s. Seems to me the Vicotian era paved the way for the 20th century and all it’s social changes.

  2. Albert Tucher

    Another fascinating book on the period: The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage, which makes the point that no other innovation in communications technology has made the quantitative difference that the telegraph made. Communication across vast distances went from a matter of months to a matter of minutes.

  3. Laura K. Curtis

    @Al – I bet that caused a huge furor, too.

  4. Charles Finch

    @bungluna – interesting point about the 50’s/60’s. I’d be curious to hear some examples.

    And Al, very true about the telegram. I’ll have to check out that book.

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