With over one million cases of domestic violence reported every year, an ever-increasing number of juvenile offenders and the prison service creaking at the seams, the main themes of 'Capital Punishments' are as relevant today as they were over a century ago. In Victorian London, after murder, theft was considered the most serious offence, with cases of assault, when reported, resulting in fairly light sentences. Although we have now reversed this emphasis, both crimes are still all too common in today's society.
When reading about the crimes of violence in the opening chapters, one cannot help but notice the recurring scenario: alcohol, overcrowding, a poorly-educated population and grinding poverty.
In the second half of the book we follow those found guilty, of sometimes very minor offences, into gaol. With the end of transportation, a massive prison building programme had to be undertaken as penal servitude replaced earlier punishments. Different views as to how to reform the criminals were experimented with; these included a rule of total silence in some prisons, the wearing of masks, the treadwheel and enforced hard labour. Very few were reformed.
A true impression of the harsh conditions 'inside' is best gained from the prisoners who had to endure the strict regime and detailed extracts from their anonymous works have been quoted.
If you are interested in executions and conditions on the prison hulks these may be found in 'London... The Sinister Side' details on page 88.