The Key Features and Changes in the History of Crime and Punishment in the UK

Crime and punishment has changed constantly throughout our history. From the earliest records we can piece together what types of crimes there were, and how they were punished in the United Kingdom. There have also been many changes which have helped mould our current legal system.

From very early on in the United Kingdom, the law involved the protection of property and individuals. We can see from early court records that the most common type of crime in the middle ages was that of theft. It accounted for nearly three quarters of all crimes, with murder coming next, receiving stolen goods, and then all other crimes including rape, arson, treason etc. only makes up around 2% of crimes. The punishments that were handed out for these crimes varied and were kept constant up until around the 19th century. The death penalty was often used as it was seen as the easiest option, and could be used as a deterrent for others. Prison, or ‘gaol’ as it was known as, was not usually seen as an option as it was too expensive. Hanging was seen as the best option, so much so that around 75,000 people were thought to have been executed in this manner between the year of 1530 and 1630.

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There were other types of punishments including fines, the use of the stocks/pillory, boiling alive, and forfeiture of land or property. These would be used for petty crimes; there was no obvious punishment structure so punishments were handed out according to what was thought to be best. It was thought that if punishments were carried out publicly, it would be seen as a deterrent for others. These types of public punishments were the use of the gallows, whipping, and of course, executions. Public executions, which happened around eight times a year in Tyburn or Newgate, are known to have created large crowds, it was seen as entertainment. Crowds of between 3000 and 7000 people were considered normal on execution days. Until 1790 women who were convicted were hanged, and then their dead bodies were burned in front of the gathered crowds. For the men who were convicted, they were executed, and then were beheaded, their heads held up for the crowd to see.

During the Tudor and Stuart period, there were many significant changes taking place throughout England. The population during this time doubled in size, this meant that were uprisings, and vagrancy was seen as a major threat for the country. There was no police system that was efficient enough, and this led to the emergence of the ‘thief-taker’. Crime rates were seen to be on the rise, and because there were now newspapers, this information on the crime rates was widely available to the public. Thief takers were private individuals hired to capture criminals. They were often hired by victims of crime; unfortunately thief takers were often corrupt themselves. They would collect ‘protection money’ from criminals and then hand them in to authorities. The courts were changing during this period, the introduction of new crimes created new courts such as, church courts, borough courts and assizes. Witchcraft prosecutions were mainly held in church courts as it was seen as a religious crime.

In the Eighteenth Century the power of the Monarchy and the Church were replaced by the Law and the Government. This gave a change in the attitude towards imprisonment as a punishment. The death penalty was being used less and less as there was a growing reluctance towards it. There were lock ups, houses of corrections and prisons, however they were not used properly, and there were no real custodial sentences. There were over 90 prisons built in the United Kingdom between 1840 and 1877, however there was still much public debate as to what they were to be used for and how much they were going to cost to run effectively.

Within these prisons there were two systems used. The first was called the ‘Separate System’. Criminals were forced to be in solitary confinement for most of the day, this was done as it was thought that the criminals would have to spend most of their day thinking about what they had done, and it would make them repent. The other system was known as the ‘Silent System’. This system made the criminals do hard boring work in large workshops, and although they would be with other prisoners, they were made to work in complete silence. If any criminal was to break these rules they were punished further. At this time, young offenders were started to be treated differently, and this was the start of the youth justice system.

Between 1780 and 1865 there was a huge change within the prison systems. Before the change of power from the monarchy and church to law and government, prisons were often unorganised and neglect was very high. Once this change had taken place the prisons were more orderly and functional and were considered a lot more effective than they had once been.

During the nineteenth century the United Kingdom went through major changes due to the urbanization of the country and the huge population growth. Transport and mechanization was changing resulting in new crimes. We can see that crime was on the increase; although crimes were not recorded until 1805 we can see there was a considerable leap in the amount of crimes from around 1815 and 1840. Some of this increase in crime can be accounted for by the increase in the population; however it is shown that the population rose by 70% yet crime figures rose by almost 300%.

In 1829 the Metropolitan Police Act was launched. This started off what we now know as the modern Police Force. Between 1835 and 1856 there major changes to the police force and the penal system. Criminals were being caught and punished accordingly, and because of this crime rates went down by 42% between 1862 and 1901. The police force however came under fire from criminals, local elites, and the public as it was deemed that the force was too expensive and had a major threat to people’s liberties.

Throughout this time period the changes from earlier times were noticeably different. Physical punishments were no longer handed out as they were deemed ineffective. There were also changes to the punishments of young offenders. Up until 1854 young offenders were treated equally to adults, and had the same punishments. In 1854 the Young Offenders Act was set up. This meant that special reform schools were built, this meant that juveniles were not sent to prison, but were sent to these schools to repent and change their ways. Women were also being punished differently. Instead of being burned or hung like they were in earlier times, in 1853 the first women only prison was opened – Brixton.

There have been many key changes in the history of crime and punishment in the United Kingdom. The most recognisable difference is the introduction of the prison system. Before the prisons were a major part of our punishment regime, crime was dealt with in an overly harsh manner. With the introduction of our prison system we have seen a major change in the way we deal with and perceive crime. We can also see that our perception of crime has changed throughout history. The core offences from crime however have stayed the same throughout the history of crime and punishment in the United Kingdom. These offences are: murder, rape and burglary. These were seen as wrong in our early history, and are still seen on the same way today. So, although the way we deal with crime has changed, the way we see crime has not.


Newburn, T., 2009. Key Readings in Criminology. Devon: Willan Publishing [online. Accessed on 29/10/11] [online. Accessed on 3/11/11]

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The Key Features and Changes in the History of Crime and Punishment in the UK. (2017, Dec 21). Retrieved from