From the Victorian obsession for photography neither corpses nor criminals were able to escape. Small criminals, hardened bandits but also elderly women or children found red handed stealing a piece of bread, were thoroughly archived in pictures destined, very often, to the offices of the anthropologists of the time. A very interesting example of such a phenomenon is the last album of its kind survived of the Victorian prictures of criminals from Newcastle, published online by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.
Cover picture: James Scullion, condemned to 3 years of forced labour for clothes theft, and Mary Catherine Docherty, condemned to 7 years of forced labour for theft of steel.
According to Liz Rees,supervisor of the archive in Newcastle (available on Flickr), the pictures were taken not only to archive the pictures of the criminals, but also with an interest of study and research, given the popularity of the theories of criminal anthropology from the second half of the 20th century.
In those years British doctors such as James Bruce Thomson and David Nicolson and psychiatrists like the well known Henry Maudsley, supported the idea that there were some actual typologies of criminals, recognisable through a series of physical or mental flaws and through the observation of the morphology of certain parts of their body.
Below: picture of the psychiatrist Henry Maudsley
For this reason, according to Rees:
“Most of the pictures represent the prisoners with their hands on display. This is due to the theories about the shape of the cranium and hands of criminals”.
The criminal anthropology, studied in France by Alphonse Bertillon in Francia, in Italy by Cesare Lombroso in Italia and in Austria by Hans Gross, is the idea that a person is born criminal and that its criminal tendencies can be spotted through some physical indicators. Such theories were contained within a more general interest for anthropological classifications which covered the 19th century in Europe.
The picture of Newcastle, as well as the 67,000 pictures of prisoners in Victorian era published on two archives of the website “Find My Past”, offers a slice on some aspects of the British legal system in the 19th century.
In the Victorian era, for example, there were no restrictions on the age in which a child could be sent to prison as well as minimum age for penal responsibility. If detention homes in England started appearing already by the 50’s of the 19th century, the children condemned for a crime were supposed to serve the first years in a prison along with the adults, with all the problems linked with that type of promiscuity. As for the analysis of the social provenience, the prisoners depicted at their arrival within the departments , show an obvious belonging to their social class, which was for the 95% of the cases poor. Most of there appear dirty, ill and malnourished.
“I believe that most of the committed crimes were linked to poverty”, commented Rees. “There are some prisoners who appear to be middle class and well dressed. But most of them seem in a desperate state”.
Some examples are Rosanna Watson and Mary Catherine Docherty, respectively 14 and 13 years old, both condemned to forced labour for having stolen some metal.
Below: Rosanna Watson
Below: Mary Catherine Docherty
If we compare the picture of the criminals in Newcastle to the ones from Bedford prison, what emerges about an analysis on the crimes is that justice could be quick and brutal. Amongst the most common crimes there was begging, typical at the time in England, however there were also some some small theft punished with severe sentences.
Catherine May, seamstress in her 26 years old was condemned to 3 years in prison for having stolen a small purse; she died after 5 months behind bars as the conditions inside the prisons were extremely harsh.
Below: Catherine May in her last picture
The reiteration of a crime would lead to a serious worsening of the sentence: in this sense the young George Bennett (picture below), condemned for poaching and obstruction to public officer to 2 years of prison.
Below: Jane Greene, 20 years old, was sent in a penal colony in Australia for 4 years for the theft of a promissory note and some golden coins of a woman named Mary Mayne.
In the years during which Victoria was in charge, around 160,000 men and women, sometimes even just children, were deported to Australia, practice which carried on for a long time up until the WWI. Many people did not survive and just a minority managed to save up enough to ever be able to come back to their native Great Britain.