Disease, murder, violence, greed… Living in Victorian times was no walk in the park.

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In Victorian times, life expectancy in England’s smoggy, grimy cities was a pitiful 25 to 30 years – with those in the county only doing marginally better at 40. Diseases such as smallpox, cholera and TB – hangings, murders and the threat of violent crime – combined with the constant struggle to make ends meet and feed and clothe large families – or to fuel addictions – led many to turn their hands to insalubrious ways of getting by…

And even though the wealthy benefited from rich food, servants and a fine roof over their head, many gave in to greed, lust and hatred, and committed dreadful crimes themselves.

‘Common people’

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The Old Bailey Online lists the proceedings of London’s infamous central court from 1674-1913. Here are the tales of some ordinarily Victorian folk who fell foul of the law…

– 12-year-old James Larkin and 15-year-old (aptly named) Charles Pidgeon were indicted for stealing ‘one fowl’ valued at 1s, from a Benjamin Smith. Both boys were whipped before being discharged.

– 16-year-old Moses Myers stole, ‘1 pawnbroker’s duplicate, value 1s. 6d. 1 shilling, and 1 penny’ from Dinah Pardon. He was jailed for eight months and whipped.

– 17-year-old John Evans pickpocketed 2 sovereigns from William Lee – he was jailed for six months and whipped.

– Poor 18-year-old John Bates pickpocketed a handkerchief – and was sentenced to 10 years transportation…

– 23-year-old James Pharaoh pleaded guilty to bigamy, and ‘feloniously marrying Emily Eldret, his wife being alive.’ He got six months inside.

– 35-year-old Thomas Meredith pleaded guilty and received nine months’ imprisonment for, ‘burglariously breaking and entering the dwelling house of Henry Jackson, and stealing therein 1 jacket, 1 coat, 6 boots, and 2 shoes; his property.’

But some nasty individuals committed much worse felonies than pickpocketing and bigamy…

Sneyd-Kynnersley

Accounts of this horrible headmaster’s pitiless beatings are staggering. Sneyd-Kynnersley ran St George’s School, near Ascot. He was famed for his brutal floggings, often using other pupils to help him restrain his victim. One pupil, Roger Fry, describes the scene: “The swishing was given with the master’s full strength and it only took two or three strokes for drops of blood to form everywhere. It continued for 15–20 strokes by which time the wretched boy’s bottom was a mass of blood.

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‘Generally the boys took it in silence, but sometimes there were scenes of screaming and howling and struggling, which made me almost sick with disgust. And that wasn’t the worst. There was a wild, red-haired Irish boy, a cruel brute himself, who was punished. Either it was deliberate or he had diarrhea, but he let fly. The angry headmaster, instead of stopping, went on with even more fury till the ceiling and the walls of his room were covered with filth.’

Dr Thomas Neill Cream

Known as the Lambeth Poisoner, serial killer Dr Thomas Neill Cream may’ve killed more people than Jack The Ripper. In Victorian times, poisons and drugs such as arsenic, laudanum, cocaine and opium were readily available to buy in chemists and were used for home remedies. So it was pretty easy to poison someone, should you want to… Dr Cream took up residence in poverty ridden Lambeth and murdered prostitutes using strychnine – today used as a pesticide – which causes an unimaginably agonising death. He was hung in 1892.

 

Rough environment

The Victorian era was certainly not for the faint-hearted…

Start ‘em young

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Street urchins and pickpockets are a familiar image of Victorian London. Many little children had no choice but to turn to stealing to survive – but if caught, faced disproportionally harsh sentences. Kids as young as 11 would be sentenced to a week or two of hard labour simply for stealing clothes. Scrap metal and food were often nicked, too – just like today.

 

‘Hung by the neck until dead…’

Thankfully, by the start of the Victorian period, the so-called Bloody Code – which listed an staggering 220 crimes punishable by death – had been relaxed. But to those still sentenced to execution, that offered little comfort.

Hangings were carried out in public – and, for the crowd, were festival-like events, with street-sellers peddling refreshments including pies and gin to excited spectators. Executions were often held on market days to ensure the biggest crowds – with a lucky few able to hang out of windows and sit on balconies in order to get an even better view.

Crowds in the tens of thousands – some accounts put the largest gatherings at 20,000 to 100,000 – waited with baited breath to see the condemned hung.

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So what of the poor person who was led up to the gallows to face the baying crowd? If they were unlucky, they would’ve been hung by the short-drop method – taking several minutes to lose consciousness and eventually strangle to death. This method was employed by executioner William Calcraft – who was often criticised by some in the crowd who’d take pity on the condemned, pulling on the legs and body of the victim to hasten death by breaking their neck.

Considered the more ‘humane’ mode of hanging, the long-drop method was invented by hangman William Marwood – it ensured that the victim’s neck was broken immediately on dropping.

The condemned’s last words would be recorded and sold as pamphlets for souvenirs, for great profit. From 1868, public hangings were ended.