by Bill Hartley
In May of this year the Guardian featured a story about feminist author Naomi Wolf who had recently published a book called Outrages. The book has been described as ‘the dramatic, buried history of how nineteenth century laws gave the state new powers to criminalise love between men….’ The story quoted Ms Wolf telling the Observer ‘People widely believed that the last executions for sodomy were in 1830 but I read every Old Bailey record throughout the nineteenth century, so I know not only did they continue but they got worse’. One can only imagine Ms Wolf’s discomfiture when on the Radio 3 Arts and Ideas programme writer and broadcaster Matthew Sweet drew her attention to the meaning of the very precise historical legal term ‘death recorded’. It wasn’t evidence of an execution; in fact, it indicated the opposite. Mr Sweet added that there was no evidence of the Victorians executing anyone for sodomy.
It seems that in our present Age of Offence some people are prepared to believe anything about those awful Victorians especially when it buttresses contemporary beliefs and prejudices; consequently it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine a modern reader uncritically accepting accounts of judicial slaughter in the Victorian era. Fortunately, Ms Wolf says she has alerted her publishers and so the Victorians have had that charge against them dropped.
Why then are we prepared to accept almost anything about this era? In 1918 Lytton Strachey said that ‘the history of the Victorian age will never be written. We know too much about it’. He was wrong there of course and down the years we have been forgetting a great deal about the Victorians and in the process filling in the gaps with misinformation. In his book Inventing the Victorians, Matthew Sweet shows how the cinema can be blamed for some of this. For example, the 1946 David Lean picture Great Expectations created a nineteenth century noir upon which many other films were based. Out at Bray Studios, Hammer cornered the market for a time with their films about vampires, over inquisitive archaeologists and mad scientists: many featuring men in tweeds and ladies in crinolines. Peter Cushing can take much of the blame for the verisimilitude he brought to his work.
The Victorian treatment of criminals with its focus on shame, redemption and hard work might seem somewhat primitive to us but they were more sophisticated than perhaps they are given credit for. Research into the subject as Ms Wolf discovered isn’t always easy and the internet is a minefield. Websites covering Victorian crime and punishment range from the reputable BBC History to the hopelessly amateur created by punishment enthusiasts, who delight in producing supposedly accurate accounts of people being hauled off to the gallows. The Penny Dreadful is alive and well in the electronic age and ironically some of the material cited can be traced back to dodgy Victorian sources, hence it can be very misleading.
There may be something in the notion that when a society has the ultimate punishment at its disposal it is likely to use it sparingly. Examples can be found of judges exercising discretion to an extent which would be unthinkable today and even cases where the monarch herself might intervene. See, for example, R v Dudley & Stevens (1884) where the accused were sentenced to death and ended up doing six months hard labour.
George Orwell had quite a bit to say about criminal justice notably in his famous essay ‘Decline of the English Murder’. Interestingly when he criticises cruel and vindictive judges he reaches back not to the Victorian era. Instead he chooses to refer to judges ‘with their minds firmly fixed in the 18thcentury’. In doing so Orwell was quite correct; that was a time when people could face execution for a wide variety of offences. During Queen Victoria’s reign the number of capital crimes was being reduced, a good reason to be sceptical about the notion that they were culling ‘sodomites’. Between 1800 and 1899, 3,365 people were executed in England and Wales. It should be noted that before the year she came to the throne, more than a third of the century had elapsed during which time the death penalty was available for poachers and pickpockets. Presumably this would account for a fair number of the overall figure. At HM Prison Liverpool between its opening in 1855 and 1895 when the original burial ground was closed, only nine executions were carried out. The records of the Liverpool and Birkenhead Quarter sessions for the year 1887 show no prosecutions for indecency. Admittedly this is only a snapshot, albeit at two of the busiest provincial courts in the country. Here, convictions for theft predominated and were mostly dealt with by the magistrates, resulting in sentences of a few months (though generally with hard labour). However, sexual offences against females were harshly punished. In that year at the Liverpool Assizes there were four convictions for rape resulting in sentences of between seven and twenty years. Convictions for attempted suicide and child abandonment received token sentences of only one day, suggesting that the accused were more to be pitied than punished. Victorian courts could be merciful at times.
Ms Wolf doesn’t overlook that most famous martyr on the altar of Victorian prejudice, Oscar Wilde. Actually the Wilde case is a questionable example. Wilde was urged by his friends not to go to law. He ignored this very sensible advice, failed in his prosecution and that was the point when he found himself facing trial for indecency. Even then, before notice of prosecution was given, Wilde might have dodged his fate. His friends urged him to leave the country and once more he ignored their advice. What followed his conviction was cruel and humiliating and Wilde deserves our sympathy for this but the fact is he put himself in the firing line. It is worth reading De Profundis, his famous letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, in which Wilde describes their relationship and how his personal and professional ruin came about. One is left thinking that even Wilde cannot quite grasp how he could have been so foolish, particularly when he was supported by such loyal friends, the complete antithesis of the selfish and capricious Douglas.
Believing we know all about the Victorians is a potentially hazardous business. Prudish they may have been in some matters but they could also be more subtle and sympathetic than contemporary opinion would give them credit for. Their approach to criminal justice was far from perfect but more nuanced than we realise.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service