Public Executions: Class, Morality and Race – Peter Fathers

Derby Mercury - Barrett Hanging 1
Anon, ‘The Execution of Michael Barrett’, The Derby Mercury, Wednesday 3 June 1868, Issue 8039

Until the abolition of public executions in 1868, vast crowds of people from all walks of life attended these demonstrations of state justice. The decision to move the spectacle from the public eye was heavily debated between the middle and upper-classes of the mid-nineteenth century, and culminated in the Royal Capital Punishment Commission of 1866 when the recommendation to move executions inside prison walls was finally made. The reasoning behind this move was largely influenced by fears surrounding the harm that such events caused to the morals of the working-classes who attended the hangings. However, Gatrell has argued that it was not just fears over the morals of the working-class, but the insecurities of the ‘self-controlling people’ (Dickens being one of them) in the upper-classes about their own sense of morality, which caused the crowd to become the target of criticism.[1]

This article from 1868 gives almost as much attention to the ’‘beggars’’ that attended the execution itself. This raises the question as to whether the true entertainment was the execution or the crowd.[2] The focus on the ‘‘beggars’… coming to town’ drew a dividing line between the regular labourers, who were going about their business, the journalist, the rest of the crows, and the slum dwellers who were almost invading the area around Newgate Prison.[3] The fact that the journalist saw fit to make this distinction is significant as it shows that the inhabitants of the slums were seen as being different from everyone else, yet were still an object of interest for the presumably middle-class journalist and the Telegraph’s readership. It is not surprising that this was highlighted as slum residents were often seen as being part of a ‘criminal class’ which Sharpe has argued was seen as being a ‘product of rapid industrialization and urbanization’ and who ‘enjoyed a lifestyle different from those of both the bourgeoisie and the respectable poor’.[4] Furthermore, Potter has identified that Dickens ‘felt that it might have even been an incentive to crime or even become addictive to witness (event to himself)’ which highlights the concerns surrounding the type of entertainment that the slum dwellers were attracted to.[5] This presents the concerns that the higher classes had towards the moral condition of the working-classes which will be discussed later.

The poor were often described as being of a different race or paralleled with animals in a similar fashion to the inhabitants of Britain’s Empire. The difference in living conditions between the poor and the rich led to the practice of ‘slumming’ where middle and upper-class men and women would visit slums as a kind of urban safari to see how the poor lived; Steinbach has argued that this created a sense of slums being ‘simultaneously familiar and foreign’.[6] Attempts have been made by historians to link the language used towards the working-classes to the language used against natives within the empire. For example, by highlighting the ‘vagabondage’ of the ‘‘beggars’’ the arguments of Thompson are applicable. He has argued that ‘vagabonds’ were one of a number of ‘sub-categories’ within the working-class which the higher classes used to compare to people within the empire as they ‘were deemed a threat… to the moral health of the rest of the working-class population’.[7] Other historians such as Hall have argued that newspaper readers ‘could enter the imagined community of the nation and empire, as well as that of the town, as they read of strange doings elsewhere and reflected on their own different and not so different daily lives’.[8] This suggests that articles such as this and newspapers in general served the important purpose of creating links between the empire and the metropole, and gave prominence to the similarities between the two. The ‘grotesque figures’ which were described at the hanging could be paralleled with the dehumanising comparisons between black people and apes within the empire and related to by a reading public.[9]

Derby Mercury - Barrett Hanging 2
Anon, ‘The Execution of Michael Barrett’, The Derby Mercury, Wednesday 3 June 1868, Issue 8039

In addition to the creation of a division between classes, by identifying this group of people as separate from the rest, it created a link between the ‘sad and horrible’ entertainment of public executions and the immorality of the poor.[10] This was one of the main motivations for the abolition of capital punishment in 1868 as McGowen has argued that ‘[the poor’s] moral depravity stood revealed in their desire for amusement’ which was a concern as the upper and middle-classes thought that ‘the crowd and the murderer [belonged] to the same moral universe’.[11] This led to movements and measures by elites to improve the moral standards of the slum dwellers as they set-up residencies such as Toynbee Hall and organisations such as Ellen Ranyard’s Bible and Domestic Female Mission.[12]

The article is a helpful prism through which perceptions of the poor in nineteenth century Britain can be seen. The almost morbid fascination with this single group of attendees at the execution sheds light on upper and middle-class concerns over the morality of the working class whilst their description highlights the divisions which existed between sections of the poor and the rich. The syndication of the article is also revealing as it highlights a wide interest in this type of article and the conditions of the poor. It is important to remember that this article does not tell a complete story about the attractiveness of executions and this type of entertainment amongst the various classes. Thousands of people attended these events and not all were working class. Therefore, this article is useful for showing middle and upper-class views of the poor but must be used in combination with various other sources to complete a full picture of differing attitudes towards entertainment in the nineteenth century.

Peter Fathers


[1] Gatrell, V. A. C., The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p.605

[2] Anon, ‘The Execution of Michael Barrett’, The Derby Mercury, Wednesday 3 June 1868, Issue 8039

[3] Anon, ‘The Execution of Michael Barrett’, The Derby Mercury, Wednesday 3 June 1868, Issue 8039

[4] Sharpe. J.A., Crime in Early Modern England 1550-1750, Second Edition (London: Routledge, 1999), p.135

[5] Potter, Harry, Hanging in Judgement: Religion and the Death Penalty in England, (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1993), pp.69-70

[6] Steinbach, Understanding the Victorians: Politics, Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), p.23

[7] Thompson, Andrew, The Empire Strikes Back? : The Impact of Imperialism on Britain from the Mid-Nineteenth Century, (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2005), p.40

[8] Hall, Catherine, ‘Bringing the Empire Back In’, Boyd, Kelly, and McWilliam, Rohan, (eds.), The Victorian Studies Reader, (London: Routledge, 2007), p.417

[9] Anon, ‘The Execution of Michael Barrett’, The Derby Mercury, Wednesday 3 June 1868, Issue 8039

Magubane, Zine, Bringing the Empire Home: Race, Class, and Gender in Britain and Colonial South Africa, (London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), p.169

[10] Anon, ‘The Execution of Michael Barrett’, The Derby Mercury, Wednesday 3 June 1868, Issue 8039

[11] McGowen, Randall, ‘The Civilizing Punishment: The End of the Public Execution in England’, Journal of British Studies, 33.3, (1994), pp.268-269

[12] Prochaska, F.K. ‘Philanthropy’, in Thompson, F.M.L. (ed.) The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp.368-369




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