Last Monday, our College historians were introduced to the cruel realities of the 18th and 19th century criminal justice system.
The visit to the Nottingham Justice Museum commenced with a brutal encounter with a resident gaoler who flicked his cat o’nine tails with menacing intent and barked orders at the new inmates from S. Anselm’s College! He pointed out that the conditions in the gaol were horrendous but would be brief, as most inmates would receive swift justice in the form of the noose or some dire corporal punishment. Such punishments might include the pillory or stocks, branding, flogging or even ducking. Sadly, none of these tools of punishment were available in the gift shop. Not even the scold’s bridal. So, there would be no reform of sanctions on return to school!
More seriously … these sentences were nearly always public and designed to humiliate the criminal and thus deter society from committing crime. They failed. Crime soared during the industrial period despite thousands being brutalised and hanged. However, some inmates were ‘fortunate’, they might avoid execution and instead be transported to Australia, a journey that could take up to nine months during which they were shackled, chained, and flung overboard if they became sick. Sadly, the majority of these unfortunate souls were poor and simply the victims of their grim circumstances. They were not inherently criminal or evil, as the establishment believed. All the above and much more was explained by our guides.
A visit downstairs to the cells (used between about 1200AD and 1800AD) was eye-opening. The cells were carved into the rock and had little or no light or sanitation. The stench would have been unbearable, and it would be difficult to imagine that prisoners, even those able to bribe the gaolers, would have survived long enough to be put on trial. The treatment of women prisoners and the work of reformers such as Elizabeth Fry and Thomas Howard were also considered, thus the students gained some fascinating insights into the suffering of wrong doers, centuries ago.
However, perhaps the real highlight of the visit was the mock trial conducted in the court room above the cells. The children prepared presentations and questions in the role of judge, appellant and respondent in the appeal case of Nicola Edgington. Not only was this a fascinating and difficult case that displayed the complexity of the law, but the process also ensured our students gained an intricate understanding of how trials are conducted. As expected, the students delivered some excellent responses during the trial. We were much impressed by Lucy G, Martha J, Deacon D, Will B, Christian C, Emma H and many others who presented well and thought quickly on their feet.
Our thanks go to the National Justice Museum especially our guide, Christy, who was excellent.
Thank you to Mr Mace, Mrs Whawell and Mr Mortimer for organising such a fascinating trip. As ever, all our College students were great company and a credit to S. Anselm’s.