Top 10 of harsh punishments handed out at Old Bailey court in London

10:08 18 June 2012

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Criminals these days have it easy. The worst that can happen is they are sent to jail to spend time at Her Majesty's Pleasure for a certain period.

It hasn't always been like this, however. Once upon time punishments were far more severe and were more closely linked to the crimes committed.

Here is a top 10 of punishments historically handed out at the Old Bailey.

1. Hanging: In front of large crowds, convicts were hanged at Tyburn village, near present-day Marble Arch. Known as 'dancing the Tyburn jig', executions occurred here from 1196 to 1783.

2. Branding: For less serious offences, convicts were branded on the thumb - a T for thief, F for felon or M for manslaughter. For a period (1699-1707), in order to increase the deterrent effect, convicts were branded on the cheek.

3. Burned at the stake: This punishment for women found guilty of treason was abolished in 1790. It was common practice for the executioner to strangle the condemned victim first.

4. Hung, drawn and quartered: A rare punishment for men convicted of high treason, this was considered the ultimate sanction of the law. Convicts were hanged, cut down while still alive, disembowelled, castrated, then beheaded and quartered.

5. Hanging in chains: To act as a deterrent, the bodies of those convicted of egregious acts were left hanging in chains near the scene of their crime. The practice was abolished in 1834.

6. Pillory: For crimes of sodomy, perjury and fraud, the convict's head and arms were locked in a wooden frame on a busy street, such as Cheapside or Charing Cross, for one hour. Crowds would then pelt the offender with rotten vegetables, dead cats and even excrement.

7. Whipping: Stripped down and tied to the back of a cart, offenders convicted of theft were flogged "until his back be bloody" along a public street near the scene of the crime.

8. Military / naval duty: A practice used frequently during War of Grand Alliance (1688-97), War of American Independence (1775-83) and Napoleonic wars (1793-1815).

9. Imprisonment: Though not perceived to be a form of punishment in itself, convicts were sent into solitary confinement to reflect on their sins and reform themselves.

10. Hard labour: In an attempt to teach them to be industrious, convicts were set to dredge the Thames and naval dockards, or beat hemp with a mallet to make rope.

Source: The Old Bailey.

Many statutes specified death as the penalty for even minor offences such as stealing a handkerchief. However, some mechanisms existed to mitigate the sentence, such as claiming 'benefit of clergy'. This was the right for the church to deal its own, less severe, punishment upon its members. Convicts were required to read a passage from the Bible to prove their affiliation.

Women could 'plead the belly', claiming pregnancy and postponing their punishment until after childbirth. Out of sympathy for the new-born baby, the woman was often later pardoned.

This list is featured in The Top 10 of London, a book by Alexander Ash, published by Hamlyn, £10 www.octopusbooks.co.uk

Do you think punishments like these could ever be brought back or are they now far too barbaric for a modern society? Add your comments below.

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