Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: July 2014

The Nuisance of Eavesdroppers

"Who ME? Eavesdrop? Never!"

“Who ME? Eavesdrop? Never!”

A bit of eavesdropping never did anybody any harm, did it? We’ve all done it. A chance conversation that next door have a bit too loudly in their back garden; an argument between two lovers at the next table in the pub. It’s natural to be a bit nosey and have a listen – a vicarious living of the lives of others, even if just for a second.

But eavesdropping was seen, in the past, as a bad habit; one that gossips partook in, in order to whisper scandalous tales to their neighbours. It was a sign of being a ‘common¬†nuisance’, in other words of doing something ‘to the annoyance of all the king’s subjects’, and William Blackstone warned against it in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, describing these gossips acerbically:

“Eaves-droppers, or such as listen under walls or windows, or the eaves of a house, to hearken after discourse, and thereupon to frame slanderous and mischievous tales, are a common nuisance.” (Commentaries, Book IV, Chapter 13, 169)

There was a clear assumption that the majority of eavesdroppers would be women, Blackstone placing eavesdroppers next to the ‘common scold…a public nuisance to her neighbourhood’.

He noted that such eavesdroppers could be either presented at a court leet, or indicted at quarter sessions, and if found guilty of the offence, could be fined or bound over to good behaviour.

It was clearly seen to be a lesser offence than scolding, and thus not punishable with the cucking or ducking stool – but it is doubtful whether the threat of a fine could really stop anyone from, um, inadvertently overhearing someone else’s conversation…particularly if it was a little bit juicy.

“Accident. Thursday evening, a poor Woman who was crossing the Road near Hyde-Park-Corner, with a Basket of Radishes on her Head, was thrown down by a Coach and four Horses, which ran over her, and kill’d her on the Spot.”

From the Country Journal, 17 May 1740

Selling sexy snuffboxes to schoolgirls, 1816

A naughty picture

A naughty picture

Union Hall: J. Price was brought up by Mr Byers, Inspector of Licenses, charged with hawking goods, not having a licence.

Mr Byers stated, that being at Richmond on Wednesday last, he observed the defendant going from house to house, selling twine and snuffboxes.

He went up to him, and asked him for his licence; the defendant produced one which was out of date, and acknowledged he had no other.

The defendant pleaded great poverty, and said he was ignorant of his licence having expired.

The magistrate was about to discharge him when, upon further investigation, it was discovered that many of the snuff-boxes had indecency and obscene engravings and pictures upon them, some of them very highly finished.

A not so naughty snuffbox.

A not so naughty snuffbox.

On being closely interrogated buy the magistrate, the defendant was obliged to confess that he was in the habit of exposing these boxes to view at Ladies’ boarding-schools, and of disposing of many of them to the young pupils!!!

The magistrate animadverted in severe terms on the conduct of the defendant, and regretted that his power of punishing him extended no further, in the first instance, than fining him 10l.

From The Examiner, 29 September 1816

Who may not be a juror?

From the fifth edition of William Nelson’s The Office and Authority of a Justice of Peace (London: W. Nelson, 1715, p.374):


Who may not be a Juror:

No apothecaries wanted here!

No apothecaries wanted here!




Attainted for any Crime.




Infants under fourteen years.

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