Victorian Crime and Punishment

10th Jan, 2020

Discover how the Victorians used to punish their prisoners and how Oxford Castle & Prison has changed over the years.

By the beginning of the Victorian era, the county gaol at Oxford was no longer a ramshackle, unsanitary enterprise, but a rigorous and austere modern institution. The rowdy, disorderly Georgian gaol became a regimented, eerily quiet Victorian version.

At Oxford, the magistrates crushed what was left of the old gaol culture of graft and gambling with a regime of hard fare, hard beds and hard labour. Prisoners were under constant supervision and had their time controlled down to the very minute.

Between 1780 and 1850, crime rates continued to rise and public fear of crime was running high. The authorities opted for more reform, and as a result, imprisoned more people and made prison life harsher and more degrading.

The prison population rose steeply. More prisonswere built to cope with the numbers. Oxford Prison greatly expanded in the mid-19th century, with the addition of new wings. Prisoners were classified according to age and gender and kept in individual cells. A separate women’s prison was built before 1851. Then, a large new cellblock, now known as ‘A’ Wing. Provision for hard labour increased with the addition of treadwheels and a capstan for pumping water.

The 1877 Prisons Act introduced a nationalised prison system with back-breaking and demoralising work as its central plank. In the early 19th century, emphasis on work was a means of reforming the convict’s soul. But after fears of prisons becoming too soft, the government introduced soul-destroying hard labour to act as a deterrent to crime.

Oxford Castle & Prison had five key hard labour punishments for their prisoners, these punishments weren’t uncommon in many other prisons:

  • The Treadwheel
    The treadwheel was a large cylinder with steps around its circumference. The prisoner would stand in a stall facing the outside of the wheel and tred on the steps. This action caused the wheel to turn, forcing the prisoner to keep walking on the spot whilst getting nowhere. The average number of steps a prisoner would make was 57,000 a day.
  • The Shot Drill
    For the Shot Drill exercise, the prisoner would have to pick up a cannonball, lift it to their chest and carry it to the far end of the yard and put it down. Then, the process was repeated all day.
  • Oakum-Picking
    Prisoners would have to untwist old tar-covered ropes from ships to separate the fibres. These fibres helped to patch cracks in the hull of ships and fill prison mattresses. The process of oakum-picking would make the hands of the prisoners’ cramp and bleed and they would have to do this for long periods of time.
  • The Crank Handle
    The Crank was a mechanical handle which prisoners had to turn thousands of times. For absolutely no reason! The slang term ‘Screw’ for a prison officer has its origin in the fact that officers were able to tighten the mechanism. This then made the prisoners work harder.
  • The Capstan
    The Capstan was an Oxford Castle speciality. There is still visible evidence at the base of St George’s Tower. Usually, the capstan helped to draw up the anchor on ships. However, the capstan at Oxford Prison pumped water from the castle millstream into a water-tank on an upper floor of the tower. This then provided water throughout the prison, notably for the laundry. So, the capstan consisted of a large wheel with eight spokes. Normally, 16 men were strapped to the spokes 2 by 2.
Victorian crime and punishment included the capstan wheel, which left grooves in the ground.

The aim of Victorian hard labour in the prison regime was to crush the spirit of inmates. Also, to force them to mend their ways. Prisoners had to stay silent during work. Moreover, tasks were tedious and often useless. The government formally abolished hard labour in 1948.

Learn more about crime and punishment during the Victorian era by visiting Oxford Castle & Prison. Book now:

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