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Victorian Crime and Punishment
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Teaching resources

Access and relevance to the National Curriculum, GCSE and A level


The information contained in the database on this site is easy to search, with vivid case studies that open a window on 19th century life. Children in Years 5 or 6 studying The Victorians at Key Stage 2 can therefore use it as a source of information on the lives of the poor and the treatment of offenders, including children and young people.

Close examination of the data, however, raises issues that can be used to illustrate complex issues of developing values and attitudes in the 19th century for Key Stage 3 students of Britain 1750 - 1900. For example, pupils comparing the verdicts and sentences imposed for different kinds of offences can see the value placed on human life and experience, and on property, in comparison with present day attitudes.

It is interesting to compare the behaviour exemplified on this site with that of educationalists, poor law administrators and clergy in the 19th century, and to work out the connections between them. Reform of the penal system and of prison conditions should have parallels with other means of improving the lot of the underprivileged, e.g. in mines, factories and on the land.

The data is highly relevant to the Crime and Punishment module of Schools History Project or British Social and Economic history at GCSE, or even to development and investigation of hypotheses in A level extended studies.

The background materials. We have also included references to 19th century literary interpretations of life in prison, and also a list of museums with prison display, or even complete prisons, that groups can visit (see places to visit). The scope of the materials will allow pupils to set the evidence simply in context.

We have included a set of suggested tasks as examples of the ways in which the resources could be used, and fruitful routes for enquiry based on the experience of Bedfordshire schools. These are not comprehensive. Once pupils become more familiar with the characters in the data file, the offences of which they stood accused and their experiences, they will begin to ask their own questions. Indeed, the materials are so interesting that it is almost necessary to allow pupils to browse for themselves when they first access the files.

Citizenship and PSHE Teachers who have even glanced at the evidence in the files realise immediately that the issues raised, are directly relevant to the Citizenship curriculum at Key Stages 3 and 4. All of the data relate to the role of authority including government in establishing social control. The pages of the Gaol Register relating to individual prisoners capture the attention of pupils. Those of us who have used the materials in the past have always found that pupils immediately start to comment in surprise on the details, raising issues of fair treatment by the authorities based on present day values, i.e. "legal and human rights and responsibilities". But that is only the start:

Pupils could consider the circumstances and the resulting attitudes that led people in 19th century Britain to adopt such severe approaches to the prevention of crime and the punishment of offenders. Did the authorities "respect differences between people"? Were they bullies?

They need to ask themselves about the impact of this treatment on prisoners, the extent to which it was effective in preventing offending, and its relevance to present day means of control. You could also compare with the system in parts of America today, where three offences = automatic life imprisonment, and consider why that is not deterring more offenders.

Capital punishment was very rare in Bedford, even though it was the legal punishment for many offences. The list of executions (provide link) is remarkably brief. What did the authorities do instead? Why? Who were executed? Should capital punishment still be carried out? At the time of the database, should more of the prisoners have been executed?

Look at the text of Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol for the impact of a hanging on the prisoners. (click here)
Think of health related issues in the dietaries (provide link). Why were prisoners in gaol for a short time given less to eat than long term prisoners? What does this tell us about the adequacy of their diet? Look at the standard diets. Can the pupils see if there is anything wrong with them from the point of view of balanced nutrition. (Why does Levi Welch have scurvy?)

The Key Stage 3 curriculum asks pupils to consider moral and social dilemmas. Is it ever right to commit an offence? Look at the evidence - is there any evidence of people who had no alternative to crime if they and their families were to stay alive and out of the workhouse? Even then, should they have given in and gone to the workhouse?

The treatment of prisoners compares closely with that of prisoners in many countries today. Pupils could set it in the context of investigations and campaigns by Amnesty International.

As with the history curriculum, allow the pupils to browse. They will certainly raise issues about the background and the treatment of offenders.

ICT - Searching the datafile is simple, but its application can raise pupils to high levels of ICT in terms of hypothesising, testing, evaluating the data and communicating findings. There are many opportunities for DTP and other means of presentation, using information or images from the file in ? builders' specifications or applications for funds from central government for the building of a new prison, ? "wanted" posters ? graphs of findings, annotated with analysis and conclusions ? news sheets about offences, trials and verdicts.

English - The language of the materials will tax the understanding of pupils at Key Stage 2, but its slightly archaic expression provides a new genre for Key Stages 3 and 4 pupils. There are opportunities for writing in different genres, e.g. - ? reports on prisoners; ? arguments put to government about issues such as conditions in prison. ? news sheets about offences, trials and verdicts. ? letters pleading for clemency or criticising a sentence. ? descriptions of the new prison buildings in letters, reports or magazine articles. ? Analysis of findings in an enquiry of the data.

There is a range of relevant 19th century literature on the subject, from which relevant extracts can be used. Here are a few suggestions:

Novels:
Charles Dickens - Great Expectations, (the escape of a convict)
Little Dorritt, (debtors' prison)
Pickwick Papers (trial and imprisonment of Mr Pickwick)
George Elliot - Adam Bede, (trial, imprisonment and transportation)
Henry Fielding - Tom Jones, (trial and imprisonment)
Kenneth Grahame - The Wind in the Willows (trial and imprisonment of Toad; written in 1908, but refers to 19th century conditions)

Poetry:
Oscar Wilde The Ballad of Reading Gaol 

Available pamphlets:

The Howard League for Penal Reform publish information on John Howard, Elizabeth Fry and the history of prisons.
Lincolnshire County Council - Convicts of Lincolnshire (concentrating on transportation) Galleries of Justice, Nottingham - Punishment and Prisons (designed for Key Stages 2 and 3)
Most of the listed places to visit have guidebooks or publications that give information about their specific circumstances.
Background information on Bedford Gaol: A Study of Bedford Prison, 1660 - 1877, by Eric Stockdale, Phillimore 1977, ISBN: 0 85033 294 X