Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1974

Crime and Punishment 1800-2000

This article is over 16 years, 2 months old
This exhibition on punishment is no torment, says Michael Lavalette
Issue 1974

The People’s History Museum in Manchester is currently hosting an exhibition on Crime and Punishment in Britain, 1800-2000. It is certainly worth visiting both the museum and the exhibition.

The phrase “law and order” is so widely used that it suggests that there is some common and shared understanding of what it actually means. But, as the exhibition makes clear, things are not quite so simple.

The exhibition poses a number of interesting questions. What is crime? Why have criminals been treated more harshly in some periods compared to others? What are the origins of the police? And what has all this to do with protecting the existing social order?

Prior to the advent of industrial capitalism, society could be harsh and unforgiving for those at the bottom. But it also offered peasants, artisans and cottage workers a degree of control over how and when they worked.

It also provided them with various common rights and established customs and practices which they used to structure their day, to appropriate goods and to eke out a living.

With the advent of industrial capitalism most of this became a problem for the ruling class. They had to enforce time discipline to ensure people were in the factory when the employers wanted them there.

They had to make sure the unemployed would migrate to wherever jobs were available, rather than seek relief.

They tried to stop people taking scraps of material home from work, or coal from slagheaps, or crops from harvested fields (this was now “stealing”). And they had to try and stop people from organising against their exploitation.

With the rise of capitalism there was a huge increase in laws passed to regulate people’s lives. These included a range of new offences and crimes against property as well as laws like the New Poor Law that dealt with people whose crime was poverty and unemployment.

The punishments were generally far more brutal than the previous norms. The unemployed were forced into the workhouse. Criminals (including young children) were imprisoned, transported or executed for minor offences.

The exhibition in Manchester covers all of this and introduces some personal stories of those who were at the wrong end of the criminal justice system.

It also makes it clear that the real reason for the introduction of the police force was not to protect ordinary working people from petty crime or violence. Rather the police were created to protect the property of the rich and this included protecting their interests in the class struggle.

For me, the best bits of the exhibition are those that look at the criminalisation of the Suffragettes, who campaigned for votes for women, and the harassment and imprisonment of working class activists

The exhibition is all the more powerful because it is located in the People’s History Museum. Make sure you include enough time to go through the rest of the museum that deals with the history of the labour movement in Britain.

Both the temporary and permanent exhibitions provide plenty of interactive points for children to get involved with. In some museums “interactive history” is really about the commodification of history and historical events, but here it is usefully done to engage children and introduce them to bigger social and political questions.

I took my 12 and eight year old children and this was one time in a museum they moaned because we had to leave!

Crime and Punishment 1800-2000. People’s History Museum, Manchester. Until 15 January 2006. Free. Phone 0161 228 7212 or go to

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance