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Taking teaching outside the classroom: crime and punishment in situ

 

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On Monday this week I removed my second-year class on crime and punishment from the confines of a Waterside campus classroom (lovely as they are) and transported it to a real life courthouse in the centre of Northampton.

Northampton’s Sessions House was built after the fire that destroyed much of the town in 1675. This gave the local authorities the opportunity to create a purpose-built space to hold the biannual county assizes and the quarterly sessions of the peace.  There are two courts in the complex – one for criminal and one for civil cases – both have had some significant modernization since the late 1700s but plenty of the original courtrooms have survived.

Below the courts are holding cells, and it is still possible to access the ‘walk of shame’ that would have conveyed commended prisoners to the gallows that was situated towards the rear of the complex.  Still possible, that is, so long as you have a friendly and well-informed guide like Dr Alan Clarke, our friendly expert in local English history.

About 30 history undergraduates take my level 5 module (HIS2010) at the University of Northampton and in last week’s class we had looked at the nature of the court trial in the eighteenth century, at the role of the judge and juries, and considered the importance of architecture in the process of the administration of ‘justice’.

This is quite limited in a modern classroom when your key resources are contemporary written accounts and images like this one (of the Old Bailey in the early 1800s).

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My students have just embarked on a project that will see them reenact a real trial using the published records of London’s Central Criminal Court in the past and so I was keen to let them get a sense of what a trial might have been like. I rather enjoy the idea of ‘experiencing’ history where possible, even if (thanks goodness) I can’t begin to experience the fear of being tried for an offence for which I might pay with my life if convicted.

Alan took us on a tour of the court complex – the cells (where evidence of their recently past can be seen in the surviving graffiti from the 1970s and 1980s), the judge’s chambers, and the nineteenth-century gaol block.

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He also described the interior of both courts, pointing out and explaining the symbolism woven into the intricate plaster work (the work of Edward Goodge). Over the judge’s chair in the criminal court are emblems representing truth, justice, material wealth (and its opposite), as well as the image of the devil complete with a tongue which supposedly wags when someone tells a lie in court.

Having settled the class back down after our tour I now gave individuals roles to play as we reconstructed two short cases from the Old Bailey Proceedings in the 1700s. The first was the trial of a domestic servant who had given birth in secret and was accused of ‘destroying’ her illegitimate child. The trial took hardly any time at all to find her guilty and to condemn her death and anatomization. The evidence was limited, the few witnesses that spoke up for her were ineffectual, and this made a deep impression on the class as we unpacked it afterwards.

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The second case was no less brutal; another young woman, this time accused of killing man because he called her ‘a whore’. Despite the evidence of intent being almost nonexistent and contentious (the knife she used had a rounded blade, hardly likely to have inflicted the wounds described by the witnesses that spoke against her) she too was convicted and sentenced to hang.

Both cases revealed that respectability and class played a more important role in the eighteenth-century courtroom than evidence did. But more than this the very act of voicing the words spoken in a real court space helped us understand how the various actors were perceived. There is a very different perspective sitting (as the student playing the judge did) at the apex of the court looking down on everyone else, than there is looking up from the dock, knowing that behind you is a staircase (merely ladder when the court was built) to the dark cells below.

In January these students will be back in court so that they can put on their own assessed trials. They have 15-20 minutes to reenact a case of their choosing before myself and a colleague will discuss what they have learnt from the process and how it has shaped their understanding the criminal justice system of the past.

Of course, we can’t possibly experience history in the way that people did in the past: there were plenty of giggles as students placed in the dock or ‘locked’ into a cell but engaging with history in this way does bring it alive. Taking students out of the comfort of a classroom changes perspectives, mine as well as theirs, and I think we ought to do it more often.

Drew Gray (Subject lead, Humanities)

 

 

 

 

 

Inside Wandsworth Gaol: A historian’s perspective on prison visiting

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As a academic historian who works on the history of crime (and most of that in London) when I was offered the chance to take a peek inside a working English prison I could hardly refuse. I run modules on crime and punishment at the University of Northampton and help students explore the changing nature of penal policy over 200 or more years from the late 1600s to the early 20th century.

So when the nice people at London Historians organised a behind-the-scenes visit to Wandsworth Prison Museum I was quick off the block and bagged one of the 10 places on offer.WPmain gates

Last Sunday I trekked across the capital to the imposing gates of Wandsworth Prison to meet up with the other lucky visitors and our guide, Stewart McLaughlin a serving Prison Officer and curator of the small prison museum.

We started in the museum which is about the size of a scout hut, and packed solid with neatly labelled exhibits. Stewart has gathered together an impressive collection of prison relics which he’s arranged chronologically so that it tells the story of Wandsworth from its early days (as the Surrey House of Correction) through the nationalisation of prisons (in 1878),to  its use as a military prison during the First World War, and on to the present day.

We ‘met’ famous inmates like Oscar Wilde and the man that killed Dr Martin Luther King (James Earl Ray), and some of those that ended their days inside on the end of a rope. Wandsworth was a hanging gaol and this is where George Chapman (aka Severin Klosowski – a ‘Ripper’ suspect), John Haigh and the wartime traitor William Joyce (‘Lord Haw-Haw’) were all executed. We saw Albert Pierrepoint’s execution rope and other memorabilia that reminded us that until 1961 murderers were still being ‘dropped’ at Wandsworth.

 

The exhibition is a fascinating glimpse into the prison’s long history and Stewart has pieced it together with considerable skill (and limited resources!) This is an example of one man’s efforts to preserve and display history and one wonders what will happen when he decides to hang up his keys for good.

It is one thing to be allowed to peer into the past via an exhibition of the artefacts of penal history, it is quite another to be invited to walk through the  gates of a working prison. This is exactly what we all did next though, carefully moving under Stewart’s guidance from the reception area to the large open star that links the five man wings (A to F) together. This central boss used to allow officers (then warders) to see right down each wing and control the prisoners. Not quite a panopticon as Jeremy Bentham envisaged his ‘inspection house’ but effective all the same. We stood while Stewart explained the prison’s history and working structure and patiently answered a stream of questions.

As he did so the prison carried on all around us, with the sounds of cell doors clanging, keys (and more keys!) and male voices. All of this was permeated by the smells of a closed institution: Sunday (‘school’) dinner, laundry, stale air, but (surprisingly given all the media coverage of prisons) not a trace of drugs. This was a calm space as far I could see. Outside in the exercise yard men were chatting in the sunshine, no one paid this small group of visitors any attention, they just seemed to be getting on with life.

As we wandered through Stewart took us to the staff room in one wing. Quite an ordinary space with kettle, cups and tupperware lunch boxes. Well ‘ordinary’ except that this was one one of two condemned cells in Wandsworth and so suddenly we were left to imagine how some people may have struggled to relax while they waited to see if an appeal was successful or the executioner would lead them off to the gallows.

Outside, as we stared up at the razor wire that is intended to prevent modern prisoners emulating the Great Train robber Ronnie Biggs and scaling the high walls, our attention was brought to the concrete paths that cover the ground between the walls and the prison itself. Under here, we were told, lie the remains of those who were executed within the confines of the gaol. Since the abolition of hanging families have been able to exhume their loved ones and rebury them, but many don’t. As our guide pointed out most murderers kill people close to them and so the hanged are often the second deaths in a tragic set of events. Let sleeping dogs lie is often the most obvious reaction.

One young man whose remains were taken away to be cremated outside was John Amery, the son of Leo Amery the Conservative politician and (like Churchill) a noted opponent of appeasement. Unlike his father John Amery was attracted to the Nazi cause and became a fascist and follower of Hitler. He was hanged at Wandsworth in December 1945 for his treasonable activities during the war.

The final place we visited was the set of smaller wings that used to make up the women’s prison until the late 1800s. During the First World War this was utilised by the military as a detainment camp. Here the prison held squaddies that broke the rules or absconded as well as conscientious objectors and (following the Easter Rising in 1916) upwards of 200  Irish Republicans accused of ‘betraying’ their king and country.

And then – and I have to admit this was quite a relief – we were back to the reception house and, once we’d handed over our passes, the doors were opened and we exited into the afternoon sun. The walk across Wandsworth Common took me past couples of all ages, children playing, dogs running free, ice cream vendors and people sitting outside the nearby pub enjoying a pint with their friends. It was a sobering reminder of what everyone in that prison had given up – albeit not all voluntarily.

Wandsworth Prison museum is not open to the public but is open for academic visitors, researchers and local history groups. All you have to do is make an appointment and be curious (and brave) enough to cross the threshold.

Drew Gray (Subject lead, History, University of Northampton).

‘O monstrous traitor! I arrest thee!’: From Guy Fawkes to the Brexit ‘betrayers’ a short history of treason in England

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The execution of the Gunpowder Plotters, by Claes (Nicolaes) Jansz Vissche (1606)

Today is the 412th anniversary of the execution of Guy Fawkes and his fellow Gunpowder plotters. As every school boy knows Fawkes was arrested on the 5 November 1605 as he prepared to blow up the Westminster Hall and send King James I and his ministers to an early grave. Instead it was Fawkes, along with Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, and Robert Keyes who were to die in a gruesome public execution on the 31 January the following year. The other conspirators (Everard Digby, Robert Wintour, John Grant, and Thomas Bates) had been despatched a day earlier, while Robert Catesby (the ringleader) and Thomas Percy escaped punishment altogether.*

The gunpowder plotters were traitors; they had conspired to kill the reigning anointed monarch and replace him with a Catholic more to their liking. It is hard to see the Gunpowder Plot then, as anything other than a traitorous attempt to overthrow the legitimate ruler and his government and install a foreign power.

In this blog I’d like to reflect on the nature of treason in history, on how the form of punishment of traitors changed over the centuries,  and make an observation on how the word ‘traitor’ has been very publicly misused in recent months.

But let’s start with the execution of Fawkes and the penalty for treason in the 1600s.

The Gunpowder Plotters were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered in a very public display of the power of the state and king. Traitors such as Fawkes were ‘drawn’ to the place of execution on a plank or cart which was pulled backwards by a horse, as a symbolic shaming of the individual. This practice continued throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as those sentenced to a more ‘normal’ death by hanging would be paraded through the streets on a ‘rattling cart’ for the crowd to see. Execution was intentionally public – ‘justice’ was to be seen to be done because that both consolidated the power of the state and deterred others from committing similar crimes.

Once the condemned had reached the place of execution they were dragged up on to the scaffold which was a raised platform that allowed the watching crowd an excellent view of the event. The ‘victim’ was then hanged, but not as offenders were hanged in the last years before the death penalty was suspended. There was no carefully calculated drop through a trap door to snap your neck; instead prisoners were slowly strangled.

The state executioner would have to time it just right. He wanted to ensure maximum pain and fear of death without actually killing his charge. When he judged that the traitor was  nearly dead he would be cut down and stretched out on the platform. Taking a large knife the executioner would then start to mutilate the body, while the culprit was still alive.

The genitals would be cut off – another deeply symbolic gesture – followed by the putting out of the eyes and the cutting open of the abdomen to remove the bowels. Finally he would rip out the heart and, if the condemned were not dead by then, that would finally end their suffering.img_2243

The final humiliation – in an age where burial and the afterlife were so important  – was to cut the body into quarters (literal quartering) for it to be distributed to the four points of the compass for display as a warning to others. The head would often be attached to some obvious public place, like London Bridge.

Guy Fawkes actually managed to escape this awful fate because as he mounted the scaffold he thrust his head through the noose and threw himself off, breaking his own neck and effectively committing suicide. His co-conspirators were not so fortunate.

Plenty of others suffered a similar fate in the 1600s. You didn’t actually have to commit such an obvious act of treason either; merely minting your own money (‘coining’) could earn you a similar punishment until the early 1700s. Women were spared the humiliation of being publicly dismembered , and were burned at the stake instead.

By the 1800s we had effectively abandoned hanging, drawing and quartering. Indeed the early 1800s saw a gradual move away from capital punishment and the infliction of pain  and an increased use of transportation (effective banishment) and imprisonment. So what did we do with those that committed treason?

On the 22nd February 1803 Colonel Edward Despard was hanged (with six others) on the roof of Horsemonger Gaol in front of 20,000 people for attempting to assassinate George III. Despaired wanted to overthrow the king and government but the authorities had got wind of the plot and waited for their chance to arrest him. A huge crowd turned out to see him hang.

In 1820 Arthur Thistlewood was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered for his part in organising the so-called Cato Street Conspiracy. Thistlewood (along with James Ings, James Brunt, William Davidson and Richard Tidd) had plotted to overthrow the government of the day – so this was clearly treason – but again their intentions had been discovered  and the group infiltrated by government spies.

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In 1813 the punishment for treason had been altered to remove the particular unpleasant element of public disembowelling but Thistlewood and his gang still faced an awful end. The government relented however, and their fate was commuted to hanging and post mortem decapitation. They were executed outside Newgate Gaol with their severed heads being shown to the large number of onlookers gathered outside.

This was the last public execution of a traitor in London but we have had some traitors since.

In August 1916 Roger Casement was hanged for negotiating with Germany to aid Irish revolutionaries during the First World War. Casement’s is a tale of a dramatic fall from grace, only five years earlier he had been knighted by King George V for his humanitarian aid work in Africa. It was in Africa that he came to question the validity of the imperial project however, and perhaps this propelled him towards the cause of Irish nationalism. Arrested just before the Easter Rising Casement was held in the Tower of London (where all traitors end up) while attempts to get a reprieve for him went on. They failed, in part because of revelations that he was not only a traitor but a homosexual as well, and on the 3rd August he was duly executed.

William Joyce (better known as Lord ‘Haw Haw’) was the penultimate person to executed for treason when he was hanged at Wandsworth Prison by Albert Pierrepoint on 3 January 1946. The very last person to be hanged for treason was Theodore Schurch, an Anglo-Swiss soldier in the British army who was executed the day after Joyce for working for German and Italian intelligence. No one has been executed in England for anything other than murder since Schurch.

Oswald Moseley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) was interred from 1940-1943 amid fears that he might undermine the war effort against Nazi Germany but he was wasn’t sintered to death for his crimes. Yet Moseley had flirted with Hitler and argued Britain should make peace with the Germans, and in some minds this made him a traitor, but the government chose not to take this to the test of law. Moseley survived the war and had a late flurry in the 1950s before disappearing into obscurity.

Like Edward Windsor (the would-be Edward VIII) there is a valid argument for seeing Mosely as a traitor because he negotiated with an enemy power against the interests of the ruling monarch, the government of the day, and the people.

Which brings me to the misuse of the word ‘treason’ or ‘betrayal’ today.

The High Court judges and politicians that acted to ensure that proper procedures were followed during the recent Brexit debates, were not guilty of treason under the law and it would be helpful if the tabloid press were able to set that record straight. They acted to uphold British law and our democracy and not undermine it yet they were labelled as ‘enemies of the people’ by the Daily Mail. This was taken up by some pro-leave protesters who declared that those opposing Brexit in the courts were ‘traitors to democracy’. Cwa8B4MXgAANcNj

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Given that, historically, some elements of the British newspaper media themselves flirted with treason in the 1930s (by supporting, or at least championing, fascists like Hitler and Mussolini) it is perhaps at least ironic that they seek to condemn a modern defence of parliamentary democracy as treasonous.

CsoYfH1WYAAZgW7The popular press (and some hard line pro-brexit politicians and commentators) are therefore complicit in whipping up public condemnation and abuse (especially on social media) of those that dare to present an alternative to Britain leaving the European Union. A narrow majority for change is being used as if it was landslide revolution with a few discordant voices. To label active ‘remainers’ as ‘traitors’ is not only a misuse of legal terminology it is in itself an undermining of our hard one democratic rights as a people. Given that we are supposed to be getting ‘our country back’ after march 2019 this is at the very least, paradoxical.

But then Guy Fawkes himself has mutated as a historical figure. From being a religiously motivated mercenary terrorist he has become a symbol of libertarianism. The man that dodged ‘a fate worse than death’ four centuries ago has been reinvented as a sort of anti-hero for those that see the Westminster ‘bubble’ as an undemocratic and corrupt institution in need of a modern revolution that puts ‘the people’ first for once.

Drew Gray, University of Northampton

*although their graves were later opened and their bodies exhumed and exhibited as traitors.