Tyranny and the Lash


Stephen Wade’s brief survey of the history of the penal system in Britain from the 12th to the 21st century is an entertaining read for those of a lurid turn of mind, and would make a good starting point for anyone researching aspects of prison history. Although inevitably selective, given its relative brevity, it includes a useful timeline and a full bibliography.

Wade’s purpose is not merely to recount historical facts, but to use his research as a context in which to question our modern prison system. Through a vivid and often grisly examination of past punishments, including eyewitness accounts of torture, executions and the brutality of prison life, he poses disturbing questions about the fitness for purpose of our prisons today. He asks if a more humane prison system is emerging from the lessons of the past, prefacing his question with the observation that the state of a society’s prisons is a good indicator of its level of civilisation.

His conclusions are optimistic, but his brief is narrow. He does not, for example, look at the history of military prisons and punishment, which might give more pause for thought in present times.

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