Victorians Against the Gallows

Clive Emsley welcomes a pioneering study of 19th-century death penalty abolitionists


Reviewed by: Clive Emsley
Author: James Gregory
Publisher: IB Tauris
Price (RRP): £65


By the early Victorian years the ferocious ‘Bloody Code’ of punishments of the Hanoverians had been largely dismantled. The death penalty remained for only a few offences, principally murder.

The reforming 1830s and the ‘hungry forties’ witnessed a range of groups pressing for new economic, social and political reforms – such as the abolition of slavery, an end to the Corn Laws and the adoption of the People’s Charter. Among these groups, and often drawing from the others’ memberships, was a small, but highly committed cluster of penal reformers seeking the total abolition of the death penalty in the British Isles.

These reformers and their Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment are the subject matter for James Gregory’s highly informative book.

The society had influence across Britain and links with international reformers. But, as Gregory warns, a historian’s assessment of such a body, its campaign and its links can suggest a greater unity and sustained effort than actually existed.

The society was strongest in London. Particular incidents – a condemnation, a botched or especially agonising (for watchers as well as victim) execution, or a parliamentary debate – could also spark abolitionist activity in a locality.

Quakers and clergy, both Anglican and Nonconformist, were significant among the society’s leadership; but religious arguments and biblical quotation were employed equally by retentionists, and even a few Quakers supported the continuance of the death penalty. In addition to the clergy, individuals from all classes and both genders participated in the movement.

The society, however, was never large. Its financial base was small and slender compared with those calling for an end to slavery and the Corn Laws, and many claimed that this led to its failure.

To date, most historical research on 19th-century penal reform has focussed on the initial campaigns to remove the capital sanction from categories of theft or to improve the prison environment. Such work as has been done on the campaigns to abolish capital punishment has tended to focus on the parliamentary debates.

Gregory’s book is therefore to be greatly welcomed as a significant addition to our knowledge about early Victorian attitudes to the death penalty and to some of the rituals that surrounded it. The various assessments of the membership and geographical spread of the society, its publications, its activities and its legacy also contribute significantly to a wider understanding of Victorian pressure groups.

The book is densely packed with detail and hence not always an easy read, but it is an important and fine work of scholarship.


Clive Emsley is the author of Crime and Society in England 1750–1900 (4th edition, Longman/Pearson, 2010)