Hanging by Numbers


Comparison of Hangings

England and Burma by Number

During George Orwell’s service in the Indian Imperial Police



Crick (1)


Rai (2)

England (3)





















Yearly Average



Population 1920

8 million + (4)

40 million (5)



Less than 1

Michael Shelden, in his biography of George Orwell, criticized his predecessor Bernard Crick for the accumulation of facts “given attention for their own sake” (page 7), and used Crick’s count of judicial hangings as an example. Shelden went on to repudiate the use of such facts when he wrote, “Although it is is certainly true that a great many executions took place in Burma, a detailed list for each year sheds no light on the hanging which Orwell witnessed.”

When he came to discuss Orwell’s 1931 essay ‘A Hanging’, Shelden followed his criticism with a footnote in which he acknowledged that Alok Rai had found that Crick’s figures were or are widely inaccurate.

What neither Shelden nor Crick, nor most other commentators, mention is the enormous difference in the number of judicial hangings in Burma when compared with Orwell’s home country. Orwell recorded many examples of personal abuse of position and power – the native being beaten with a cleaning rod mentioned in ‘Rudyard Kipling’ (1942), and he discussed the legal system and its European bias when he reviewed Maurice Collis’s Trials In Burmabut nowhere does he suggest that sentence of death was imposed unjustly.

In England the Home Office (and the relevant departments for the other home nations: these figures are collated separately) controlled execution tightly, but essentially there were so few that it was impossible for someone outside of the prison system to participate or observe. Executions in Burma occurred somewhere between three and ten times as frequently as England, and given the small number of white officers – only ninety in the whole country (Shelden page 94) – it was likely that one of them would have to attend, or stand in for someone absent. That could have been Orwell.

Bernard Crick suggests that there could have been another hanging witnessed by Orwell, although he is vague about the events underlying ‘A Hanging’ itself (Crick, page 85), but his remark makes it clear that judicial execution was something that a colonial official might experience, and might experience repeatedly.

Noting that executions occurred between three and ten times as frequently in Burma, though, ignores the disparity between populations: if the populations are compared equally (multiply the number of executions by five, since Burma had only one-fifth of the population of England), then executions in Burma occurred at least 16 times as often as in England, rising to 40 times as frequently in some years.

Despite the numbers Orwell nowhere suggests that executions in Burma were improper, or trials rigged. No Burman feared being dragged off by the secret police for an unknown offence, and none seemed to fear being penalised for minor offences (no trip on the football field, mentioned in ‘Shooting an Elephant’ (1936), was redefined as an assault, or the assault defined once more as attempted murder, Orwell makes clear), that were happening in Russia or soon to occur in Germany.

Neither Orwell at the time, nor his biographers since, have considered the enormous disparity in numbers of executions worth mentioning. Why?

L J Hurst

September 2017


1. Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life, page 85, quoted by Michael Sheldon, Orwell The Authorised Biography, page 7

2. Alok Rai, Orwell and the Politics of Despair, page 174, quoting Reports of the Prison Administration of Burma

Crick misses 1926, saying the volume was missing from the India Office Archive, but his three contiguous years are each in error by almost but not quite 100%. Too similar to be coincidence?

3. http://www.britishexecutions.co.uk/chronology.php, retrieved 8th July 2017

4. Burmese population source: http://www.zum.de/whkmla/region/seasia/burma19191937.html Retrieved 8th July 2017

5. The population of England was less than the UK population of 43 million and is treated as 40 million: source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography_of_the_United_Kingdom Retrieved 8th July 2017



Bernard Crick: George Orwell: A Life (Secker and Warburg, 1980)

Alok Rai: Orwell and the Politics of Despair (Cambridge University Press, 1988)

Michael Shelden: Orwell: The Authorised Biography (Heinemann, 1991)


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