Convicts wearing ‘mask hats’ exercising at Pentonville Prison. Engraving by Swain after Bennett, c.1870.

Turning chaotic havens of ‘sloth and debauchery’ into systemised institutions of ‘pain and terror’, Victorian ‘model’ prisons were anything but. 

Men sitting in the stocks in colonial America, wood engraving, 1838

Microhistories, examining a range of notorious and mundane crimes, can help recover marginalised figures and forge links to wider cultural histories.

Prisoners at work at the Noumea Penal Colony, New Caledonia, engraved by Gillot, c.1900.

When the European powers began exporting convicts to other continents, they did so to create a deterrent and to establish new settlements across the world. Clare Anderson traces the history of punitive passages.

A contemporary portrayal of Kemmler's execution.

William Kemmler was killed on August 6th, 1890. 

The brides and their killer: the trial reported, July 2nd, 1915.

A notorious mass murderer was sentenced to death on July 1st 1915.

The Acid Bath Murderer: objects relating to the murder of Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon by John Haigh, 1949 © Museum of London

How do you avoid glorifying the acts of criminals?

Evelyn Wrentan plays a highway-woman in the 1935 film, Hands Up.

This is an extract from Anna Field’s ‘Masculinity and Myth’, which won the 2014 History Today undergraduate dissertation prize, awarded in conjunction with the Royal Historical Society.

Eynon Smart traces the career of ‘that famous Cheat’, Mary Carleton, known to the Restoration world as ‘the German Princess’.

T.H. Corfe analyses a double assassination in Dublin that long left its scar on Anglo-Irish relations.

A gifted utilitarian, and sometime Member of Parliament, Douglas Hurd writes that John Bowring spent ten tumultuous years in China where he believed in supporting the cause of progress with British gunboats.