The Lamb Collection - Crime and Punishment in the 19th century. Click here to return to the Lamb Collection Main Page

Why were the jails overcrowded? | Who was policing the town? | Who were the criminals and what to do with them?
The Court System | Punishment | Notorious Crimes

1.  Dundee Tollbooth - Gate of Thief's Hole

Dundee in the 19th century: a rapidly industrialising town where population and crime rates soared, a police force was first appointed and a new jail was built. This was an era where a gibbet was built at the new Dundee jail for the public hanging of notorious criminals such as William Bury (thought by some to have been Jack the Ripper) and a person could be setenced to 7 years transportation for stealing a pair of shoes. In fact, the early 1800's saw escapes taking place from incarceration in the overcrowded old Townhouse Gaol and St Mary's Tower.

This page contains images of documents relating to Crime & Punishment in 19th Century Dundee, Scotland.

So why were the jails so crowded?

Dundee in the 19th century was a rapidly growing manufacturing town and shipping port, attracting large numbers of people from across Britain in search of work in the jute industry. With an increase in population and wealth, crime rates began to soar, reaching epidemic proportions in 1820-40, with housebreakings, thefts, assaults and robberies with violence occurring frequently. The well-to-do citizens of Dundee carried pistols as they traversed the dimly-lit streets at night due to attacks by disguised and masked 'ruffians' demanding for their 'purses or their lives'.2

During this epidemic of lawlessness, the jail became inadequate for the numbers of prisoners detained within, and after a public meeting, plans were made for the building of a new 'bridewell' or jail in Dundee. Up until 1837 when the new jail was built, the upper portion of the Town House had been used as a jail, and although it was strongly built, there were occurances of prisoner escapes from there. While the new jail was being built, the Old Steeple, or St Mary's Tower was used as a temporary jail, and though it was deemed safer than the Town House, numerous escapes also took place from there.3 Prior to the building of the Town House in 1732, the Dundee Tollbooth, above the Guild Hall, (which was situated near the present day Overgate shopping centre) had been the place of incarceration for criminals. With its leg irons and dingy punishment room, 'it is said that a woman was once eaten alive by rats in this fearful place'.4

Who was policing the town?

The first official police force - the Police Commissioners, were appointed in 1824, 5 with responsibility for lighting, paving and cleansing the town, and a concerted effort to provide gas lighting and pathways began. Prior to this, the Town Council and Magistates would appoint Town Officers, who would patrol the streets, fetter the prisoners and guard the jails. As the 19th century progressed, the powers granted to Police Commissioners gradually increased, allowing them to undertake major town refurbishments in the 1870's. The granting of the 'Police and Improvement Bill' cleansing act in 1871 saw the destruction of many of the seedier, overcrowded slum areas of Dundee, which had been seen as the sources of many criminal activities.6

Who were the criminals and what to do with them?

As the town quickly grew and changed, so too did the types of crimes committed. Rioting was common in the earlier part of the century, often over the price and availability of food. According to records of the Circuit Court from the 1830's, thieves could receive at least 7 years transportation to Australia, while a bigamist could be sent to jail for 12 months.7 A large number of people in the jail were imprisoned for the non-payment of debts and separate cells were kept for these prisoners. In the 1870's, the problem with drunkenness had become problematic, and one policeman would bring in between 60 and 70 drunk men and women on a Saturday night.8 In the late 1870's, the crime of 'shebeening' (selling alcohol without a licence) was one crime committed by more women than men, and in 1877, fines imposed on persons selling liquor without a licence raised almost £300 in revenue for the police.9 Temperance (anti-alcohol) reform was a wide-spread and influential movement throughout the 19th century. Breaches of the peace and assault were also common crimes in these years.

The Court System

The 19th century justice system consisted of two courts, the Sherrif Court and the High Court (based in Edinburgh). Both of these courts travelled on a circuit to different regional locations where cases would be tried. The most common crimes to be tried in the Sherrif Court were theft and assault, and more difficult cases were referred to the High Court - the supreme criminal court of Scotland.


In addition to being sent to Dundee jail or being transportated to Australia, punishments included being sent to one of a number of other correctional institutions. Not only criminals, but people (especially children) 'at risk' of becoming involved in criminal activities, could be sent to industrial schools. It was hoped that the kind of practical education provided in these schools would prevent them from slipping into a life of crime. A number of these correctional facilities which were established were the Rossie Reformatory10, the Dundee Industrial School 11, the 'Mars' training ship for wayward boys 12 and the Female Rescue Home for 'fallen' women 13.

Notorious crimes

A number of hangings took place in Dundee in the 1800s, usually for the crime of murder. The last man to be publicly hanged was Dr Edward William Pritchard in 1865, who had achieved some notoriety in the media for his crimes. Below can be read a study of the doctor's head by the 19th century 'science' of 'phrenology' which claimed to be able to identify criminals by the shape of their skulls [L313(8-20]. The last execution by hanging took place in Dundee in 1889, with the death of William Henry Bury, thought by some to have been Jack the Ripper (due to his untimely arrival in Dundee at the same time as the 'Ripper' murders in London stopped). In the case of Arthur Woods, a gibbet was built especially for his hanging at the new Dundee jail in 1839. Documents relating to these criminals can be read below by clicking on the images associated with them. A number of death warrants are contained in the Lamb Collection, however, not all of them were carried out - Royal pardons could be applied for and were granted to those lucky enough to have someone intervene for them.14

Another trial to have achieved notoriety was the trial of of Mary Elder, or Smith, in 1827, who was more popularly known as "The Wife o' Denside" and had many ballads and stories written about her. She was accused of murdering her maid-servant, Margaret Warden, by administering arsenic. A jury returned a verdict of "Not Proven"against her, though popular opinion condemned her as guilty [Lamb no. L312(2)]. Boxes 312 & 313 in the Lamb Collection contain a number of trial cases from the 1800's.

This information can be found in original documents contained in the Lamb Collection, Dundee Central Library and Dundee City Archives. A large portion of the material has been digitised and is available for online viewing at

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Returns at Dundee Jail, 1819

This fascinating document lists the inmates of Dundee jail throughout the year 1818. The information given includes the names of the miscreants, the nature of the offences, whose warrant they were committed by, their punishments and their dates of liberation.

As can be seen, rioting was a common offence during this period, though most rioters were treated fairly leniently. One prisoner, Alexander McPherson, Perth Road, convicted for theft, escaped through the roof of the prison. Ann McKenzie was committed to prison for not obeying the Sherrif's sentence of banishment.


The Circuit Court

This leaflet includes cases which were brought before Lords MacKenzie and Meadowbank at the circuit court in Perth. One such case was of a Elizabeth Brown accused of stealing a petticoat and pair of sheets from a Mrs Ross, innkeeper of Forfar, she was sentenced to seven years transportation.

Another case was Innes Kelley sailor, charged with the murder of his wife Janet Mitchell at their home in the Hawkhill. Even though there were several witnesses with concurring testimony proving his guilt, Innes Kelly escaped justice because of a technical discrepancy, and was discharged.




Proceedings Regarding Enlargement of Gaol and Building of New Gaol in Dundee
Memorial for the Magistrates and Town Council

1st October, 1833

The Gaol of Dundee in 1833 was situated in the Town House and was inadequate for detaining the increasing number of prisoners in a town with an increasing population. This memorial for theTown Council was intended to secure support for the construction of a new jail on land north of the Hospital Ward, between the Coupar-Angus Turnpike Road and the Dundee and Newtyle Railway.To raise the £40, 000 in funds needed for its construction, a proposal to tax the inhabitants of Dundee over a period of ten years was suggested.

In this statement of facts, the state of overcrowding in the Town House jail is described; In four rooms, an attic and a make-shift lock-up on the ground floor, the prison held 61 male and 18 female prisoners. The health dangers and the inadequacy of it for security are emphasised - there had been a number of successful escapes made by prisoners from the Town House. The new jail in Bell Street was not constructed until 1837.



An Act for Erecting a Gaol for Dundee
25th July 1834

This Act was presented in the reign of King William IV, for the erection and maintenance of a Gaol, for the Royal Burgh of Dundee, to replace the gaol which was inconveniently situated in the upper part of the Town House.

A meeting was called to appoint commissioners, who in turn would have power to appoint committees to decide the site of the gaol which should be provided by the Town Council. The Police Commission should contribute funds towards the new gaol.




Death Warrant for Alexander Marshall
28th September 1835

The Town of Dundee's Charter Chest includes a bundle of 19th century death warrants and, sometimes, pardons or remissions of sentence. This hand-written warrant for the death of Alexander Marshall calls for his execution 'by the hands of the common executioner, to be hanged by the neck upon a gibbet, until he be dead'. He was later pardoned and was instead sentenced to imprisonment and deportation.

This warrant states that Alexander Marshall, weaver, was found guilty of murder and is to be brought from the Perth tolbooth (detention place) to Dundee where the execution will take place on the 24th of October between the hours of 2pm and 4pm. The letter is signed by James W. Moncreiff and J.H. Forbes.

The Pardon for Alexander Marshall is also included in this collection [Lamb Number: ACC9-Bdle-1(iii)]



Report Regarding Setting Up a Gibbet at New Dundee Gaols
(Erected for the execution by hanging of Arthur Wood)
25th March, 1839

This report, written by James Black, was sent to the Provost of Dundee and details the setting up of a gibbet in the 'East Room on the second floor of the Hospital Buildings in front of the new gaols'. This was erected for the execution by hanging of Arthur Wood, for the murder of his son, John Drew Wood. Both he and his wife were tried for the murder, but his wife was acquitted. Both had given different stories to the police regarding what took place preceding the murder, but arguing had been heard and a witness had seen them both carry the strangled body of the son out of their home and leave the body at the foot of a stairway.

The new jail and bridewell had been erected at the corner of Bell Street and Lochee Road, and this report also details the erection of an eight-foot railing around its grounds. The execution of Arthur Wood in 1839 at the new jail attracted a large crowd and two companies of cavalry had been sent from Edinburgh to keep control of them.



Town Treasurer's Accounts
Chamberlain's Intromissions, 1838-1839

The City Archives includes a series of Treasurer's Accounts from the 16th century to the present which provide detailed information on everyday life in 19th century Dundee as well as more extraordinary events.

Many of the expenditure items listed on these pages are related to the execution of Arthur Wood in 1839. The erecting of the scaffold cost £40, 7 shillings and 11 pence (£40 7s11d); John Scott, the executioner was paid £17 5s; meat for the executioner while in the gaol cost 14s 9d; and transport for the executioner back to Edinburgh cost £2 10s.

A poster relating to the execution of Arthur Wood is also contained within the Lamb Collection (Lamb Number: P6)




Declaration of Death Sentence for William Bury

The last execution to take place in Dundee was in the year 1889, within the walls of the prison of Dundee. Between the hours of 8 and 9 o'clock a.m., 29 year-old William Bury, thought by some to have been Jack the Ripper, was executed for the crime of murdering his wife. His trial was one of the longest trials in Dundee at the time.

This poster declares that a sentence of death was passed on Bury on the 24th of April and includes a certification of death signed by J.W. Miller M.D., the medical officer at the prison. Known for his drunkardness, Bury confessed before his death his plan to kill his wife to acquire her money, which he carried out - strangling, then stabbing her and placing her body in a trunk. The couple had moved to Dundee from London and had acquired lodgings on Princes Street, where the murder took place.

Another poster relating to the execution of William Henry Bury is also included in the Lamb Collection (Lamb Number: P5)



Dundee Police Gazette
4th February 1853

This news sheet dated 1853 contains a summary of crime in Dundee and surrounding areas and also reports from the courts including the case of Margaret Crabb who was accused of "swearing", "bawling out" and behaving in a "turbulent" manner in the Overgate. Her sentence was a ten shilling fine, or ten days in prison.

Many of the crimes committed in Dundee at that time were petty, involving street brawls, petty theft and drunkenness amongst the poor. Another case reported was that of Mary Eagan who was imprisoned for ten months for exposing her six week old infant on the Lochee Road.



Letter from the Executioner - William Marwood
April 22, 1873

Addressed to the Governor of the Dundee County Prison, this letter from renowned English-born executioner William Marwood asks that the governor consider using his services for an upcoming execution in Dundee.

Marwood, by trade a cobbler, designed the scaffold drop platform whereby death was instantaneous for the hanged person, rather than the slow choking process which had been commonly used before. His belief that for humane reasons, criminals should not be choked to death, turned his attention to developing different methods.



Dundee City Police Annual Criminal Returns 1876-77
Report for the Year Ending 31st December, 1876

This book contains the Police Superintendent's Annual Reports with statistcs relating to crimes and offences. From the 1876 Report comes this table showing the number of cases brought before the Dundee Police Court and the trade or occupation of the person apprehended or cited.

The total number of cases reported is 4780, with breaching the peace, drunkenness and assault being the most common crimes, and labourers being the most common offenders of these crimes. One murder case was reported, the offender being a mill worker, and 123 prostitutes were arrested for 'Loitering and Importuning'.



Phrenological Key to Dr. Pritchard's Character

Dr Edward William Pritchard, a convicted criminal in the 19th century, has his head analysed according to the system of Phrenology, the study of head shape and size which claims to indicate an individual's personality and intelligence. Pritchard was a physician renowned for his extra-marital seductions of young women and was convicted of murder after he confessed to the crime of poisoning of his wife and mother-in-law.

Pritchard was hanged on 28 July 1865 and was the last man to be publicly executed in Scotland. This article refers to his 'small, round head' and attributes his criminal behaviour to shape, saying 'There is an enormous mass of brain behind the ear...and wherever it exists, we find an extensive tendency to crime'.


Lamb Collection


1. Tollbooth Illustration from Kidd's Guide to Dundee, 3rd Ed.
2. A. H. Millar, 'Haunted Dundee' in The City of Dundee - The Third Statistical Account of Scotland. p. 554
3. A. H. Millar, 1923, Haunted Dundee, pp. 246-248
4. Kidd's Guide to Dundee, 3rd Ed. p. 12
5. The following and other documents relating to the formation of the early police force are contained in the Lamb Collection: e.g. 'Dundee Police Day and Night Beats' -
Lamb Collection no. L319(2) & Minutes of the Dundee Police Commissioners - ATC-PBM-13(a), (b), (c), (d) & (e), Rules and Regulations of the Police Court - L319(10). Box 319 contains a number of interesting documents relating to the prison system and police force.
6. A number of documents relating to the powers granted to Police Commissioners are included in the Lamb Collection, as well as information regarding the changes made to Dundee as a result of the 'Police and Improvement Bill' of 1871. e.g.
Lamb Collection no: L467(29), ATC-DP-1(i)(a), ATC-DP-1(i)b, ATC-PBM-13(a).
7. The Crown Agent, 1839, [Perth Circuit Court - List of Trial Cases - Ref no. D6128]
8. The City of Dundee - The Third Statistical Account of Scotland. p. 573
Dundee City Police Annual Criminal Returns 1876-77 [Lamb Collection no. APo-1-1(a)]
10. Rossie Reformatory [See Lamb Collection no. L41(10) and L41(11)]
11. Dundee Industrial School [See Lamb Collection no. L41(6) & L41(3)]
12. 'Mars' Training Ship [See Lamb Collection no. L44(2), L44(4) & L44(7)
13. Female Rescue Home [See Lamb Collection no. AGD-X-406-1-1(a)&(b); AGD-X-406-1-2(a)&(b) and AGD-X-406-2-1(a)&(b)]

14. Another criminal with a death warrant against him not included in the selection of documents on this page is James Fraser. [Lamb Collection no. L442(10A) and L442(10B)]

© 2003 Local Studies Department, Central Library, Dundee