Bruges, Reviews and A Week of Good News

Bruges. Image courtesy of

Sometimes life is great and if you can realise it at the time, that makes it all the more pleasurable. Last sunday evening the seven days ahead had all the hallmarks of being terrible.However, It would appear that, much like looks, upcoming weeks can be deceiving. My trepidation was due to the fast approaching deadline of my 1st PhD annual review (bizarrely taking place at the 10 month stage). The review requires me to submit a 6,000 word, rigidly structured report on my progress to date and a plan for the future, all of which is then subjected to a grilling by a panel of 5 academics. The pernickety, bureaucracy of these review processes and reports are all the more annoying given the university’s inability to follow the rules they’ve set down for themselves.¹

All of my good news came on the Monday morning (the perfect day for good news). In the space of two hours I received news that the blog had had its 2,000th view (from Australia of all places), I then had an email saying that I had been accepted to speak at an international conference in Belgium (hence the opening image) and that my comedy group, Hot Gulp have received funding to film a long-term project of ours. Good things clearly do come in threes.

Research Society for Victorian Periodicals annual conference, Ghent University. I am lucky enough to have been accepted to speak there.
Research Society for Victorian Periodicals annual conference, Ghent University. I am lucky enough to have been accepted to speak there.

With three bits of morale boosting news, the first draft of my review just came flying out of me. So, as that has been my sole focus for the week, in the spirit of the blog, I thought I’d let you know (briefly) where 10 months of study has got me – think of it as a mini review (you can be the panel if you like).

I started in May 2014 with what now seems like the incredibly vague idea of studying the last dying words of the executed in the North East. As it currently stands the PhD is a wholly different beast and, I believe, more interesting for it. It’s latest title is ‘Privacy, Punishment and the Press: A study of Capital Punishment in the North-East 1750-1880.’

To speak of ‘findings’ at this stage would be premature and arrogant given the infancy of my study, so I will just outline some initial observations I have made.

1).The “Bloody Code”

Merry England - An engraving by William Heath from 1831 showing the artist's view of justice. Taken from The Hanging Tree by Vic Gattrell. (DUL ref: 343.23 GAT). Courtesy of
Merry England – An engraving by William Heath from 1831 showing the artist’s view of justice. Taken from The Hanging Tree by Vic Gattrell. (DUL ref: 343.23 GAT). Courtesy of

My period (1750-1880) straddles the so called “Bloody Code” a retrospective epithet given to the sanguinary nature of English rule in the c18th and early c19th. There is a general consensus in the literature that has not changed much from Douglas Hay’s seminal assertion in 1975 that,

“The rulers of Eighteenth-Century England cherished the death sentence”

seeing it as the

 “climactic moment in a system of criminal law based on terror.”

Hay, D., “Property, Authority and the Criminal Law” in Hay et al, Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England, 2 edition (London: Verso, 2011), 18.

Hay’s assertion is not wholly inaccurate, but like nearly all of the literature on execution in this period it does have one serious flaw; it’s almost myopic focus on London and the surrounding regions. What goes for London, does not always apply to the rest of the country and that could not be clearer in the North East. Far from an intensely bloody period of control by the rope, what I have found is that execution was a relative rarity in the North East. In Newcastle between 1750-1880 26 people were executed, that’s less than one every five years and more importantly it is less than any one decade in London and Middlesex between 1750-1830.² It is my early observation, and comprehensive new and exciting work elsewhere appears to support this, that the “Bloody Code” may need revisiting with reference to areas other than London – particularly in the North.  Interestingly, in the same period, Scotland experienced remarkably few executions and in that sense the North East appears far more in line with its cousins North of the border.

2). Privacy and Punishment 

As with the Bloody Code there is a dominant historiography that sees the 1868 Capital Punishment Amendment Act (in which executions stopped being public and went behind the prison walls) as the result of an increasing ‘civility.’ Even historians who have more recently called this theory into question, in the same breath assert that

we cannot deny that 1868 was a civilising moment

V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (Oxford University Press, 1994), 590.

My line of questioning is simple really, civilising for who?

When viewed from the perspective of the condemned, I think that the 1868 Act can be seen as indicative of a series of measures that slowly removed their agency. Although seemingly barbaric to our modern sensibilities, the public execution was in many ways the condemned man or womans’ only chance of any sort of trial. Their actions and words on the gallows were steeped in meaning and, far from just a platform of death, the scaffold was a forum from which to profess your relative innocence. It is only in our one-dimensional reading of the execution crowd as a rabbulous mob, that we have happily accepted that the only thing that was lost in the removal of public execution was a gruesome and barbaric spectacle. Given the centrality the 1868 Act has in many theories of civilising it is remarkable the lack of study on executions immediately post the 1868 Act. Surely, to understand the nature and effect of a piece of legislation one must assess what it led to. My early attempts to fill this void have led me to the following conclusion, someone executed in the 1870’s often died with no audience and no press present, their words and last dying actions rendered pointless and powerless. In this sense, they had arguably been robbed of one of the only elements of control they had over their death.

Also, on a more practical level, the dichotomy between public and private executions has been understood on t0o simplistic a level as a snap transition in 1868. My early reading of the North East executions has shown that elements of privacy crept in sporadically from region to region and for very different reasons, many far more practical than ideological. Indeed, while the execution procession was removed in 1783 in London, it wasn’t until 1850 (execution of Patrick Forbes) that a Newcastle execution happened without a grand procession through the centre of town.

3). The Body, Burial and Control 

My final observations relate to access to the criminal body and, in some respects, support my second point. Post 1832, with the passing of the Anatomy Act, it has been largely understood that medical intervention on the condemned corpse ended. Stopping the role of Surgeons as

Secondary executioners of the law.

Helen Patricia MacDonald, Human Remains: Dissection and Its Histories (Yale University Press, 2006), 2.

Ruth Richardson, in her seminal book on death, asserted that,

what had for generations been a feared and hated punishment for murder became one for poverty.

Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute: The Politics of the Corpse in Pre-Victorian Britain, New edition (London: W&N, 2001), xv.

However, with reference to the North East i believe that far from ending medical intervention a new line of scientific enquiry opened up; a phrenological one. Regular readers of this blog will know that my early research is showing that a leading group of influential phrenologists in the region were gaining access to criminals both dead and alive.

Furthermore, I believe an offshoot of the Anatomy Act has been really overlooked, that of prison burial. This was deemed as much a part of the death sentence as the execution itself. In essence it heralded a new period of state ownership over the body in which families could not lay claim to their dead and also an increasing element of privacy as the body disappeared from the public realm. This regulation ushered in a new era that one unnamed Prison official, writing in 1925, said of “in one custom we are more barbarous than our ancestors in bygone days…the Felon’s plot.”³.

Well there’s a brief summation of 10 months work for you.

One thing that’s missing in this summary of my years work is the blog itself. This is criminal considering that it has been one of the most enjoyable and instructive parts of my first year as a PhD student. Having a forum to construct and test ideas with a regular and communicative audience has been infinitely helpful to my studies and I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read, respond or critique my blogs over the last year (I was lucky enough to receive a really lovely plug from an Australian reader this week, perhaps she was the 2000th reader!). I hope that it’ll  carry on being of interest to you, the reader, right through the course of my PhD.


1. I was given two weeks notice to submit my annual review, despite the University regulation stating students should have a “minimum” of six weeks. But i’m not bitter!

2.Vic Gatrell, The Hanging Tree, p. 616. Figures are from Gatrell’s Table 1. Capital conviction and executions, London and Middlesex (Old Bailey), 1701-1834.

3. An Unnamed Prison Official The Nottingham Evening Post, 24th Oct, 1925 p.7

Distraction 1: Demi-Gods

This week we had our very good friends up from St Alban’s to celebrate my girlfriend’s and their birthdays (all early March babies). One of them is an avid music collector and producer and during his stay he bought, of all things, a Demis Roussos LP. Apropos of nothing, three days later my girlfriend’s best friend in Holland sent this photo, claiming it looked exactly like me!

Patrick RoussosI have to admit I did do a double take. It’s like seeing myself ten stone heavier. Although, at first it was devastating news, after a little research I’ve found that Demis was something of a “sex symbol.” Okay, okay so the full quote does say “an unlikely, kaftan-wearing sex symbol” but that’s still a sex symbol! As it happens, the friends that stayed are getting married next year in Demis’ homeland Greece. I haven’t suggested me performing as him at the ceremony yet, but I can’t see why they’d say no.

Distraction 2: The Sopranos

Tony SopranoContinuing the personal theme of this weeks blog and distractions section, I have been watching The Sopranos non-stop. After starting a few weeks ago I am now just starting Season 5. It’s the perfect antidote to PhD research and as someone who works a lot from home, I often feel like i’m channeling the spirit of Tony (more for his propensity to slob out in his dressing gown, than for his violent mob nature!).



One thought on “Bruges, Reviews and A Week of Good News

  1. Pingback: Public Violence, the Pillory and Mobile Phones. | lastdyingwords

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