Victorian mugshots reveal nineteenth century interest in criminal anthropology

Prisoners as young as 12 were sent to Newcastle City Gaol for stealing clothes, food and metal
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The faces of nineteenth century criminals can be seen in some of the earliest surviving police mugshots in Britain.

Examples from what is thought to be the last surviving album of Victorian criminal photographs from the Newcastle area have been published online by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Inmates of all ages, from ragamuffin children to the elderly and infirm, can be seen peering out of sepia images taken at Newcastle City Gaol and House of Correction Collection between December 1871 and December 1873.

Click here or on “View Gallery” for more pictures

According to Liz Rees, head of archives and collections at Tyne & Wear Archives, photographs were taken for two reasons: the identification of the criminal classes; and to support theories about criminal physiology.

“Most of the photographs show prisoners with their hands on their laps, or in shot. This is because of theories about the shape of the skull and hands of criminals,” Rees said. “These pictures fed into the cod psychology of the day.”

Theories of anthropological criminology, the idea that a person is born criminal, and that such tendencies can be identified by physical indicators, was fuelled by analysis of criminal mugshots by Alphonse Bertillon and Hans Gross.

In those days there were no restrictions on the age a child could be sent to prison, or indeed an age of criminal responsibility. Reform schools had been imposed in the 1850s, but children convicted of a crime still had to go to prison first.

Prisoners were photographed upon arrival at jail, so the clothes in the mugshots reflect their social status and wealth. Many of them appear dirty, unwell and malnourished.

“I think most of the crimes committed were as a result of poverty,” Rees said. “There are a few prisoners who appear middle-class and well-dressed. But the majority appear in a state of desperation.”

Heart-breaking examples include Mary Catherine Docherty (pictured) and Rosanna Watson, young girls aged fourteen and thirteen respectively, who were both sentenced to hard labour for stealing metal.

Henry Leonard Stephenson was a real-life Oliver Twist character, convicted aged twelve of breaking into houses and sentenced to two months in prison in 1873.

The mugshots are not currently on display at the museum but the general public can request to see them. A selection has been published on Flickr and Pinterest.