In Romans 13, Paul warns his flock to obey the rulers over them, saying, “But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain . . .”
These days, “the sword” of the government is usually jail time or fines or community service, and only occasionally the death penalty. But in the Regency, it was different.
Criminals were still sent to prisons then. But in the Regency, prisons weren’t nearly as regulated as they are now. Some prisons didn’t provide enough of food or other necessities for the prisoners. Some were workhouses. Worst of all, some were “hulks”: old ships moored in the Thames, where hundreds of men were locked below deck, in the dark, doomed to fight and starve and probably die long before they were granted the dubious opportunity of transportation to the colonies.
And it wasn’t just men in the prisons or hulks: children convicted of crimes were sent there, too. While men and women were generally separated in prison, adults and children were not. You can just imagine the fate of those children.
If you weren’t sent to prison, you might be sent off to the colonies, on the theory that if you couldn’t commit any more crimes in England if . . . well, if you weren’t in England anymore.
But perhaps the biggest difference between the way our government punishes crime and the way crime was punished by the government of Regency England was the death penalty. We still have it, yes, but it’s rarely used, and generally only for very serious and violent crimes. Moreover, these days, attempts are made to administer it humanely. But in the Regency, not only were hundreds of crimes were punishable by death, if you were sentenced to death, you were going to die publicly and probably not painlessly, by hanging.
However, reform of the penal code was beginning – and ongoing – in the Regency. According to Donald Low in his book The Regency Underworld, in 1816 Sir Samuel Romilly succeeded in getting pickpocketing to be no longer punishable by the death penalty. In a time when over two hundred crimes could be punished by death, this was a notable success. Other reformers began trying to implement corrective programs in the prisons or, at the very least, to separate serious criminals from the less serious, instead of having them all mill about together, the worse corrupting the better (see Peel’s Prison Act of 1823).
This post isn’t anywhere near exhaustive – the people of the Regency were inventive, and the nuances of the penal code numerous and arcane. It’s a rich field for research, but one that requires a strong stomach.
But even with all these differences between then and now, prison still isn’t a good place to be, and not even always a safe place. The spirit of the reform work and the concern for prisoners that began in the Regency are still carried out today by ministries like Prison Fellowship. And then as now, children still feel the pain imposed by the penal system. With Christmas coming, Angel Tree is a great place to start if you feel a call to ministering to the children of those in prison in this day and age. And just about every city has a prison with people in it who can use visitors and books and Bibles. Things might be better now, but they’re far from perfect. The light of Christ still needs to be taken to the darkest of places.
Peace of Christ to you,