Ordering the Mob: London's Public Punishments, c. 1783-1868
White, Matthew Trevor
This thesis explores the crowds that attended London‟s executions, pillories and public whippings during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It aims to reappraise a literature describing the carnivalesque and voyeuristic nature of popular behaviour, and to trace a continuum in the public's active engagement with the criminal justice system between 1783 and 1868. By employing a range of little used sources to examine the biographical, geographical and social texture of punishment audiences, it details the lives and motivations of the men, women and children who assembled to watch these often brutal events. In the process, this thesis significantly revises our received understanding of the troublesome punishment 'mob', the unruliness and low character of which has been frequently assumed on the basis of uncritical reading of contemporary sources inveighing against plebeian behaviour. It reveals a more stable picture of public participation, and argues that this experience was characterized by the remarkable social diversity and relative good order of the crowd. This study in consequence problematizes teleological narratives of social 'improvement' and a putative 'civilizing process', which have traditionally described the fall of public punishments as a product of changing urban sensitivities. In analysing the crowd's structure and responses to public punishments over time, the thesis demonstrates how popular expectations surrounding older forms of public justice remained essentially unchanged, and continued to speak forcefully to the metropolitan conscience. To explain the undoubted changes in punishment policy in the period, in the absence of a clear teleological narrative of attitudes towards public punishment, the thesis in turn argues that the decline of the pillory, whippings and public executions in London was driven by elite fears regarding mass behaviour, particularly in the wake of the Gordon Riots of 1780, and suggests that public punishments disappeared not because of their dwindling moral relevance or failing penal utility, but as a result of the middle class's increasingly nervous perceptions of urban mass phenomena. The thesis argues that the decline of public punishment did not result from 'squeamishness' about judicial murder and corporal punishment, but from anxiety about the authority and power of the crowd.