Monday, March 30, 2015

"The Law of the Wise": Some Corporal and Capital Punishments of the Old Bailey

By Catherine Curzon 

In these modern times, crime and punishment is something of a political hot potato. The question of leniency of sentencing is one that crops up time and again in coverage of this most serious issue, with the rights of those convicted of crimes and their victims a subject of near constant debate. We recognise now that it is important that the severity of the punishment should fit the nature of the crime though, of course, these are not particularly simple waters to navigate. 

Crime and punishment in the Georgian era is, of course, a favourite subject of mine and I have, on occasion, been accused of having a somewhat macabre interest in the Bloody Code. My post today should do nothing to dispel those rumours and it is my morbid pleasure to be your guide to some of the most popular methods of corporal and capital punishment imposed at the Old Bailey throughout the long 18th century. 

In coming posts, we will learn a little more of the other punishment options available and those who were subjected to them but for now, consider this your Georgian punishment digest! 


Branding was the act of marking a felon with a hot iron, often with the shape of a letter that represented their crime such an M for murderer. In the early 18th century these brands were made on the cheek of the criminal but, eventually, they were branded on the thumb in order to give them at least a chance of finding employment and living something close to a normal life. With the branding carried out in the courtroom on the day of the sentencing, the very public and permanent mark meant that branding could only be applied once. 

The pillory at Charing Cross in London, c. 1808.
The pillory at Charing Cross in London, c. 1808.
The pillory was usually set in the middle of a busy part of town to ensure that the maximum punishment and humiliation was inflicted on the felon. A cousin of the stocks, the pillory allowed the convict to be secured by neck and hands and there he would be subjected to abuse from the populace, both verbal and physical. All manner of items would be hurled at the person in the pillory, from faeces to rotten food and even dead cats or, in the case of Daniel Defoe, fresh flowers! Although not intended to cause lasting physical harm, there are records of deaths, blindings and other serious injury to those being pilloried. On occasion, the person in the pillory might be unfortunate enough to encounter our next punishment at the same time. 


Another punishment with a strong element of public humiliation was that of whipping. On occasion related to the pillory, it was more often applied in the very streets of the city. Whether male or female the felon was stripped to the waist and tied to a cart that moved through the streets. Stumbling along after the vehicle, the convict endured both pain and humiliation as, walking behind, the executioner whipped them through the gathered crowds.

The Tyburn Tree
Death by Hanging
This is the punishment most associated with the era and tales of the Tyburn Tree echo through history, ballads and stories told of the men and women who died there. Some were notorious, some forgotten but all shared the dubious honour of meeting their death on this famous site. Of course, not everyone who went to their deaths did so at Tyburn and not everybody who was handed the death penalty was actually executed but this chilling sentence remains at the heart of the Bloody Code.

Driven in a cart from their prison to the gallows with their hands bound, convicts were subject to a public procession through the streets of London where crowds awaited them. Some were feted, others abused and on occasion, stops were made to allow the condemned to take some last drops of alcohol or, in the cases of some more celebrated prisoners, meet their public!

Upon arrival at Tyburn, where still more spectators crowded in to watch, the prisoner was given the chance to address the crowd. Whilst some took the route of repentance, others protested their innocence, remained silent or were too shocked, terrified or drunk to make much sense at all. Still in the cart, the noose was placed around the convict’s neck, the hood over their head and the cart was driven away, leaving them hanging and suffering a slow, agonising death by strangulation. Later the cart was replaced by a drop that was intended to result in a quicker death; often it did, but sometimes, it did not. Family and friends of the hanging person would rush to their aid, dragging at their flailing legs in an effort to hasten their death and lessen their suffering.

Not all who received the death penalty met their fate on the gallows, of course. A pregnant woman might “plead her belly” and escape the penalty and, in many cases, such sentences for men and women were commuted to lesser punishments. Now and again, though not exactly often, a convict might even be pardoned and set free.

Newgate, the old city gate and prison
The Old Bailey in the 18th century was not a place where leniency was practised often and if modern methods focus on rehabilitation, this was not the case for our Georgian ancestors. Punishments were severe and even crimes that seem relatively minor to us now, such as pickpocketing, might result in transportation or execution. Likewise, age was no barrier to receiving a harsh sentence and Britain’s laws were regarded, rightly, as some of the most strict in Europe. Over time the punishments began to reduce in severity for lesser crimes but for many years execution remained a viable and popular sentence. The last hanging in England took place in 1964 and even now a particularly brutal crime sees calls for the death penalty to be reintroduced. It is a debate that still goes on, of course, but for the foreseeable future, no criminal sentenced in England will face the noose.

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (
Brooke, Alan and Brandon, David, Tyburn: London's Fatal Tree (The History Press, 2013)
Cawthorne, Nigel, Public Executions: From Ancient Rome to the Present Day, Arcturus Publishing (2006)
Gatrell, Vic, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868 (OUP, Oxford, 1996)
Grovier, Kelly, The Gaol (John Murray, London, 2009)
Nelson, John, The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Islington, in the County of Middlesex, T Lester (1829)
Wade, Stephen, Britain's Most Notorious Hangmen (Wharncliffe Books, 2009)
Webb, Simon, Execution: A History of Capital Punishment in Britain (The History Press, 2011)


Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.


  1. Fascinating, but so grim! I suppose things are a better now, but there is still so much cruelty in the world. I was horrified of what I learned of punishments during the 17th century, too. I simply do not know how people survived the pain and suffering of those eras.

    1. Thank you for reading; very grim indeed, with yet more to come...

  2. I had heard about Daniel Defoe and the flowers. Mind you, he was always on the run from his creditors and nobody came to his funeral. I believe that at one stage, in the 19th century, women were more likely to be transported than men because there weren't enough women to keep male convicts happy in Australia.

    1. I wrote in my more detail on my own site about Defoe and will be delving into transportation in a forthcoming post. Thank you for reading!


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