To Relieve the Innocent Population: Victorian Political Periodical Discourses on the Issue of Criminals

In 1863 John Ruskin, writing in Fraser’s Magazine on the subject of political and social economy, rather startlingly argued the following:

All criminals should at once be set to the most dangerous and painful forms of it [labour], especially to work in mines and at furnaces, so as to relieve the innocent population as far as possible…[i]

This might sound like quite an extreme view by today’s standards, however in the mid-Victorian era there was an observable tension surrounding the treatment of criminals and their socio-economic contributions to society. By the mid-1860s, the number of criminals was increasing at an alarming rate, as the number of persons executed for capital offences or Transported overseas steadily decreased over the first half of the nineteenth century. The number of capital offences had been reduced by over 100 in 1823, thanks to the efforts of Sir Robert Peel.[ii] In addition, Transportation as a form of criminal punishment had been abolished in 1857 by the Penal Servitude Act after Australia (understandably) became unwilling to continue receiving Britain’s convicts. By 1861, the introduction of the Offences Against the Person Act had reduced the amount of capital crimes to just four.

As a result, imprisonment as a form of punishment increased in usage dramatically, and subsequently prisons rapidly became overcrowded. The Government, alongside the public and by extension those writing in the mid-Victorian periodical press, became increasingly concerned about what to do with these criminals. The periodical press, freed from punitive legislation that had previous stifled discussion on most political subjects by the repeal of the ‘taxes on knowledge’ in 1861, picked up on this issue and wrote extensively on the subject. This tension was increasingly discussed in periodical discourses, as politicians, periodical publishers as well as the general public struggled with how to deal with the rapidly increasing number of convicted criminals.

Fraser’s Magazine, the periodical in which John Ruskin wrote the previously quoted lines, was a Tory periodical, which often concerned itself with questions of politics and economics.[iii] Ruskin’s ideas really highlight a Tory attitude towards criminality, then – the question of how to keep the new influx of prisoners active and contributing to society. The Government shared this perspective quite strongly, and this led to the establishment of prison-work details such as bakeries and carpenter workshops, alongside the more feared treadmills and other menial tasks in an attempt to keep prisoners working and economically functional. For example, the below schematic of Coldbath Fields Prison from 1884 (fig. 1) shows the presence of an in-prison bakery and a flour-mill, as well as a carpenter’s workshop, alongside a treadmill house. The sections in pink denote areas that are new – including these facilities, which were designed to keep prisoners economically active.


Figure 1: This image was accessed from the National Archives, available at

There was also significant periodical discussion on this subject at the other end of the political spectrum. Liberal periodicals were also interested in the impacts of the loss of Transportation and the reduction of capital punishment, but from the perspective of the psychological and social impacts on prisoners.

In an additional example of this Tory attitude that convicted prisoners must be kept contributing to society, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, perhaps the most famously vehemently Tory periodical wrote in 1858:

We must take care that the honest labourer does not feel himself the worse for the criminal. This creates a difficulty in the execution of that prime requisite in convict discipline – the introduction of industrious habits.

By purely sacrificing the produce of the labour, the end is not achieved, because it is the aim of the discipline to impart adequate notions of the importance of productive labour.[iv]

Clearly Blackwood’s argues that the most important aspect of prison and judicial discipline is to impart the idea of hard work into prisoners to keep them contributing to society, though the ‘honest labourer’ must not feel that they are worse off than the criminal in their endeavours.

From a Liberal/Whig perspective, the focus in periodical discussion was less on economic impacts of criminality. For example, in 1865 The Edinburgh Review, one of the most venerable and vehement Whig publications (Liberal after the Whig Party’s dissolution in 1859)[v] published an article entitled ‘ART. II.-1. Our Convicts’, which explored the way that becoming a ‘criminal’ affected individual people and caused changes in their perceived identities, and explored how the more centralised and bureaucratic system of law-enforcement affected the ways in which the public perceived criminals as well, creating a marginalised identity from which they could never escape even if they had paid for their transgressions:

A blind man is thought of not as a man who is blind, but as one separated from the rest of mankind by his blindness. A man addicted to liquor, becomes to all but his household connexions, a drunkard and there’s an end. So a man who has once transgressed the boundaries of the criminal law, is thenceforward a criminal [original emphasis], and in that term we seem, as it were, to drown many of the common attributes of human nature, though it is by the temptations of human nature itself that he has fallen.[vi]

The concern of The Edinburgh Review here is therefore not the way that prisoners should be kept economically functional or contributing to society after they have become a ‘criminal’ and imprisoned, but instead the effect that a centralised criminal justice system had on the population as a whole in terms of their perceived identities to others. Criminals who are neither executed nor Transported are marginalised by their isolation inside prison, and once released the label ‘criminal’ cannot be removed. This is an issue that remains relevant today.

The question of capital punishment, therefore, is relevant to both political arguments when periodicals discussed exactly what they wanted to do with convicted criminals. Tory periodicals felt that, as capital punishment was now in use more rarely than it had been at the beginning of the nineteenth century, convicts who resided in prison instead should be kept contributing to society. However, some also argued for the death penalty as a more finite, deterring and (occasionally) cheaper solution to criminality. By contrast, Liberal periodicals were interested in how the reduced use of capital punishment or transportation affected the identity of prisoners after they had been incarcerated, and how they were kept socially integrated.

Capital punishment and the abolition of Transportation had caused this discussion to increase dramatically on both sides of the political spectrum – and it remained a widely contested and debated issue – a search for ‘Capital Punishment’ on the ProQuest British Periodicals database reveals that it was most extensively discussed in the years 1860-69 (throughout the period between 1800 and 1900), with over 3800 hits.

In 1863, the Tory periodical Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published an article discussing the historical case of Eliza Fenning, a 22-year-old girl hanged in 1815 for the attempted murder of her employer and his children. It analyses the way that the case was handled and how the conviction was received by the public, acknowledging that many were of the belief that Fenning was wrongfully convicted. Far from questioning the Government’s use of capital punishment, however, the article argues:

… it must be remembered that Fenning was defended by able counsel; that after her conviction the case was again investigated by the law advisers of the Crown; that the trial took place on the 11th of April, and the execution was delayed until the 26th of July – a period of more than three months, during which time every opportunity was afforded for bringing forward any circumstance that might tell in the prisoner’s favour…[vii]

In 1863, Blackwood’s again touched on the subject of capital punishment, publishing an article which explored the case of the Wigtown Martyrs. In the article, it argues rather strongly:

All capital punishments must be revolting … Neither the Government nor its agents can therefore be justly held answerable for the mode of execution; and the attendant horrors, the prolonged agony, the wanton recall to life… [viii]

In this case, capital punishment is a necessary evil, and its revolting nature unavoidable. However, not all Tory periodicals felt the same. In 1866, The New Monthly Magazine, a Tory periodical founded by Henry Colburn in 1814[ix] argued that the reduction of the death penalty was desirable, despite the fact that convicted prisoners were more economically costly than executed ones, due to the inherent dishonesty in some people that the fear of the death penalty merely masked:

A man who is only honest from fear of the law’s vengeance is the same noxious member of society without the courage of the active offender.[x]

The same article goes on to advocate prison as a form of punishment, and uses religion as a reason as to why capital punishment cannot be enforced:

We are bound to secure the murderer, and place him where the members of the social body may be secure from any future outrages on his part, but no more. … man has no right to revenge the crime [murder] in the same mode.[xi]

Far from advocating capital punishment through the argument that convicted prisoners were expensive to maintain, this staunchly Tory periodical instead argues that society at large is duty-bound to segregate the prisoner away from the rest of society, but that it is not acceptable to execute them, on moral and religious grounds. Thus, the issue of what to do with criminals becomes more sophisticated.

The direct rival to The New Monthly Magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, agreed. In 1864, it wrote:

Murder, and treason against the state, are the crimes for which the highest penalty of the law are reserved. But, in order that they should deserve such a penalty, it ought to be shown that they are of a kind to increase with a less sever punishment.

In the case of treason: a rebellion has been put down, and the ring-leaders caught, tried and sentenced to death. What can be the use of taking away the life of these misguided men? Their power to do harm is gone, and their death will not arrest any fresh rising. Imprisonment for life, or even a term of years, would, therefore, be as effective as the harsher penalty.[xii]    

Thus, the question of prisoners in periodicals remained contentious, however there was an overarching sense that the idea of capital punishment was antiquated. The periodical press became a forum in which authors and contributors could discuss the treatment of criminals in an increasingly sophisticated criminal justice system – sometimes seen today to be barbaric, but much more progressive than it had hitherto been.



[i] Ruskin J., ‘Essays on Political Economy’, Frasers Magazine, April 1863, p. 442

[ii] Anonymous, Types of Punishment – Hanging’, Victorian Crime and Punishment, online resource available at, accessed 20 September 2016

[iii] Brake, L. and M. Demoor, Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism, Ghent: Academia Publishing (2009), p. 231

[iv] ‘Our Convicts – Past and Present’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, March 1858, p. 305

[v] Brake, L. and M. Demoor, Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism…, p. 190

[vi] ‘ART. II.-1. Our Convicts.’, The Edinburgh Review, October 1865, p. 338

[vii] ‘Judicial Puzzles – Eliza Fenning’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, February 1861., p. 236-237

[viii] ‘The Wigtown Martyrs’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, December 1863, p. 743

[ix] Brake, L. and M. Demoor, Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism

[x] ‘Capital Punishment’, The New Monthly Magazine, February 1866, p. 231

[xi] Ibid., p. 234

[xii] ‘Capital Punishment’, Bentley’s Miscellany, July 1864, p. 172


Author: Sam Saunders

I am a PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at LJMU, researching the construction of crime fiction and its reception in the popular periodical press.

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