Crime & punishment, according to our ancestors: the LMA shines a light on the fate of Old Bailey convicts

I have a feeling that not all that many people know of the existence of the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), tucked away as it is on a residential street in the heart of Clerkenwell. It’s a real shame, if that’s the case, as this four-story building is a veritable treasure trove dedicated to collecting, preserving, celebrating and sharing the stories of London and Londoners and the capital’s many communities.

It also plays host, on a regular basis, to various exhibitions, one of which was the reason for my visit today. Over to LMA for an explanation:

Between 1700 and 1900, the British government stopped punishing the bodies of London’s convicts and increasingly sought to exile them and/or reform their minds. From hanging, branding and whipping the response to crime shifted to transportation and imprisonment. By the 19th century, judges chose between two contrasting forms of punishments: exile and forced labour in Australia, or incarceration in strictlycontrolled reformatory’ prisons at home.

LMA and Digital Panopticon have combined forces to trace the impact of punishments on individual lives. ‘Criminal Lives, 1780 – 1900: Punishing Old Bailey Convicts’ follows the men, women and children convicted in London from their crimes and trials through to their experiences of punishment and their subsequent lives.

What I particularly liked about this exhibition is the way in which it brings history to life through the people who lived it. Its various “Walls” are dedicated to different elements of the crime & punishment process, beginning with Wall A, which describes how policing and arrest evolved between 1700 and 1900. Policing in the 18th century was a community affair, I learned, with everyone obliged to respond to a cry of “Stop thief!” or “Murder!” by seizing the culprit.

On Wall B, we are given a glimpse into Old Bailey trials. 18th and 19th century trials bore little resemblance to modern day trials, sometimes lasting merely minutes with defendants forced to plead their own cases in intimidating circumstances.

Old Bailey scene
‘Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey’, by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1840)

This is where we meet Charlotte Walker, a prostitute and pickpocket who was repeatedly arrested over 24 years. Tried 12 times at the Old Bailey, she was finally convicted and transported in 1880. Thanks to Digital Panopticon’s research we know that Charlotte arrived in Sydney in 1801, lived as a concubine with a craftsman and was given a ticket of leave shortly before her death.

Wall C – ‘Corporate Punishment’ – casts a spotlight on the grim reality of punishment before the pre-modern judicial system took effect. The infliction of pain was seen as the quickest and most effective means of achieving the main purposes of punishment deterrence and retribution. Punishments were conducted in public in order to maximise their impact in preventing crime.

The death penalty stood at the apex of the penal system throughout this period and until the 1790s dozens of Old Bailey and convicts were executed each year, usually through hanging, in public, at Tyburn. For the most serious crimes the state invented more brutal types of execution.

However, over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries those punishments were replaced by transportation and imprisonment, which focused on exiling / reforming the convict.

That brings us on to Walls D & E and the impact of the political crisis of the 1780s on the penal system. Following the American Revolution in 1776, Britain’s most frequent punishment, transportation to North America, ceased to be viable. Despite the creation of ‘hulks’ (prison ships), London’s prisons soon became overcrowded – a situation brought to crisis point in November 1780 when the week-long Gordon Riots destroyed prisons and threw the capital into chaos. Over 2,000 prisoners were released, the Bank of England was attacked repeatedly, 300 people died and hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage sustained. Central government was forced to declare martial law.

Thus began a desperate search for a new way of dealing with people convicted at the Old Bailey. The first option was to hang them and in 1785 96 men and women met this fate. But worries about the consequences of a bloodbath prompted the government to seek other alternatives. It tried transporting criminals to the west coast of Africa, before finally deciding to send them to Australia.

Thomas Limpus lived through all of the above experiences. Born into a pauper family and first convicted of theft at the age of 17, during 1777 Thomas spent several stints in London’s hulks and prisons and was part of the ill-fated attempt to transport convicts to Africa. After returning to London and being convicted of the offence of returning from transportation, he mutinied on a transport ship bound for America and attempted to escape from a hulk. Thomas was finally successfully transported on the First Fleet in 1787 to New South Wales.

The final Walls describe the process of transportation to Australia and the living conditions of the 163,000 convicted men, women and children – which were harsh. Subject to forced exile and compulsory labour, convicts feared punishment by flogging. Living conditions varied, with some convicts made to work on isolated homesteads and others interned in penal labour camps.

Transportee uniform
Typical uniform worn by a transportee

Nonetheless, the status of being a convict was temporary for most of those transported. On release, many former convicts were able to benefit from opportunities including crop farming and the wool trade. However, the relative scarcity of women in the colony made a ‘conventional’ family life an unrealised aspiration for many male transportees.

This, of course, is only one side of the story. Frontier violence, Aboriginal demographic catastrophe and indigenous land dispossession without treaty or compensation also informed this history. The transportation system of colonial punishment, reform and imperial economic success ultimately came at a high cost to the diverse Aboriginal communities of Australia.

This enthralling exhibition concludes with a discussion of how historical legacies of criminal lives and punishments continue to resonate through 21st century Britain. A number of Victorian prisons remain in use and the contemporary system of parole is modelled on the ‘ticket of leave’ system used in the Australian penal colonies. And the Howard League, which campaigns for the reform of contemporary British prisons, is named after the 18th century prison reformer, John Howard.



  1. Fascinating! In all my trips to London I’ve never checked out this gallery. Seems like a must for my next visit in October. The choice of a harlequin design for the convicts’ outfits is so interesting. Perhaps selected because it stood out from ordinary dress? Or the association with a court jester, aka “fool”?

    Liked by 1 person

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