“A History of Torture in Britain” by Simon Webb


Thanks to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for the advanced reading copy.

Anyone who has taught History knows that nothing excites young learners quite as much as descriptions of medieval torture, this book certainly provides that in spades. This book follows a largely chronological account of the history of torture in Britain, up to and including the recent past. It covers the differences between torture methods utilised in Scotland and England, and torture suffered by those in more far flung parts of the British empire such as India and Kenya. It is perhaps easier for readers to feel less outraged by the distant past than the more contemporary accounts of torture and I certainly found the book more difficult to read as I progressed through it.

The author provides detailed accounts of a variety of different torture methods, and the vivid descriptions made me wince more than once. The accounts of torture suffered by slaves in the West Indies makes for particularly grim reading. The book is written in a chatty, accessible style which might not appeal to more academic readers, but I enjoyed it for the most part. I’ve noticed a trend in recent years for non-fiction historical books to adopt a more casual style. Whether or not that is a good thing is an argument for another day, but it certainly makes for an easier read for most and would appeal more to the casual reader. My only real critique of the writing style would be the author’s almost criminal overuse of exclamation marks. This was distracting and sometimes seemed inappropriate in the context given.

The first half of the book is stronger, it begins to lose it a little towards the end where the author begins to wax lyrical about modern torture and the slightly naïve suggestion that torture is a thing of the past, if only that were true.

Overall this was an interesting and engaging read. It provides vivid descriptions of a variety of different torture methods used past and present throughout the British Isles and doesn’t fail to confront the very real horrors perpetuated by the British Empire throughout history.

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