Industrial Era Crime and Punishment



  • By 1850, the population of England was 27 million and London was the largest city in Europe
  • When harvests were poor, some people were forced to turn to crime
  • People flocked to large towns and cities in order to find work.  They often lived in overcrowded and unhealthy conditions.  Family life became disrupted and communities weren't as close-knit as they used to be.  Criminals didn't have to worry about the disapproval and influences of people they knew
  • Transport improved rapidly during this period.  By 1850, there were 10,000 miles of railway in Britain.  Criminals could either rob the trains or use them to getaway quickly
  • Most people worked in factories by 1850.  Working hours were long and conditions were poor.  Crime may have offered an easier alternative


Transportation had been in place since the 1660s, when the British sent criminals and rebels to America.  But in the 1780s, America won their independence and so transportation to America had to stop.  For a while, prisoners were kept in prisons and hulks, but they soon became far too overcrowded and conditions became appalling.

Australia had only been discovered in the 1770s, so the first convicts sent to Australia would be the first to find out what it was like.  The first fleet set sail for Australia in 1787.  The convicts would either be sentenced to 7 years, 14 years or life.  Most of the convicts had committed minor crimes, such as petty theft.  After eight months, the first batch of convicts landed in Australia.  48 died on the voyage, which was a surprisingly low number given that transportation in this early stage was poorly planned and experimental.  The problem was that most of the convicts were unskilled, and there were 1000 people who needed shelter!  Astonishingly, most of the convicts survived by the time the second fleet arrived, 2 years later.

What were the aims of transportation?

  • To provide an alternative to hanging - many people felt that hanging was too severe a punishment for minor crimes.  Judges and juries were becoming reluctant to convict.  Building prisons would be too expensive
  • To deter criminals - Australia was unknown and situated on the other side of the world, thousands of miles away.  The government hoped that the idea of being sent there would be enough to terrify people and therefore deter them from committing crime
  • To get rid of criminals - transportation would reduce the number of people in the criminal class and remove them from society
  • To reform criminals - criminals would have to learn skills that would be necessary for survival.  The government hoped that when the criminals returned to Britain, they would be able to use the useful skills they learned and lead law-abiding lives
  • To boost the development of Australia and reinforce its place in the British Empire - transportation would help Britain to claim Australia for the Empire.  This would discourage their enemies, such…


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