Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: November 2014

The 'habit and repute' thief in Scottish law

A later 19th century thief (courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums).

A later 19th century thief (courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums).

Daniel Morrison was just 17 years old, but he had a bad reputation.

He had started thieving young, and had already received convictions for theft and swindling. Now he was up again in court.

It was October 1817, Edinburgh.

Daniel was charged with two offences; the first, with obtaining money under false pretences. This was not unexpected. He would go to almost any length to get money from somewhere – stealing, cheating, whatever.

But the second charge? That was a bit different. He was accused of being a ‘habit and repute thief’. This was a charge under Scottish common law that took into account the temper and disposition of a person, and was an admittance of ‘bad character’.

You could not be charged with being a habit and repute a thief unless you were charged with another offence – excluding murder or assault – at the same time. You could not be found guilty of the former, unless you were found guilty of the latter.

This is not to say that the law was always followed to the letter. On occasion, a person had been found guilty of habit and repute, but acquitted of the other theft charge, and bound over to good behaviour.

But in short, Daniel was being written off by the system – still in his teens, but dismissed as being a criminal character who had little chance of repenting.

He was found guilty of being a ‘habit and repute thief’, the facts being ‘satisfactorily proven’. This meant that it was considered that he had a bad character, a bad name for theft specifically, and that other witnesses considered him a bad person.

Poor Daniel was sentenced to a 60 day spell in the local bridewell – and for thirty days of his sentence, he was ordered to only be fed on bread and water.

Sources: Caledonian Mercury, 23 October 1817; ‘A Treatise on various branches of the criminal law in Scotland’ by John Burnett (Archibald Constable, Edinburgh, 1811), pp.127-131

Trousers tempting for a hungry man

220px-Fortunes_of_a_Street_WaifIt’s always nice to see a bit of compassion evident in the verdicts of 19th century jurors – after all, it wasn’t always displayed, and many a poor man and woman ended up at the gallows despite, to modern eyes, having valid reasons for having committed some thefts, for example.

But one case before the Surrey magistrates in 1838 saw a man sympathised with for being so hungry that he stole a pair of trousers – not in order to eat the trousers, but to sell them on in order to be able to buy a bit of food.

The man was Thomas Miles, described in The Times as “a poor, half-famished-looking-fellow”.

He was of weak intellect, and had been unable to find any work. After having failed to find anything to eat for two days, he had applied to the local Poor Law Guardians for relief.

Despite telling the guardians that he had not eaten, they rejected his appeal. Instead, they said:

“Go about your business, and get work, and earn your bread.”

Thomas left the guardians – but he had tried and failed to find work already. He was desperate – and desperately hungry. He was about to walk past a clothes dealer’s shop, when he noticed a pair of trousers hanging up on a hook outside, ready to tempt buyers.

He grabbed them off the hook, thinking that he could sell them to a second hand dealer, and make a few pence for some bread – just like the guardians had told him to.

Unfortunately, not being very quick, Thomas had failed to notice other shoppers watching him. He was chased, and caught, still with the trousers in his hand.

Yet although he was quickly found guilty of theft at the next sessions the jury recommended him to mercy, apparently blaming the clothes dealer more than Thomas:

“We recommend him to mercy, principally on account of the temptation held out by the shopkeeper in hanging such articles outside his door, which was an inducement for the hungry.”

Thomas Miles was lucky, then, in one respect. He was committed to Brixton Gaol for one month, which meant a full month of being fed – something which the poor law guardians were not able to do for him.

Story taken from The Times, 7 February 1838, page 7

Book review: Print Culture, Crime and Justice in C18th London

 “I have long said, that if a paragraph in a newspaper contains a word of truth, it is sure to be accompanied with two or three blunders; yet, who will believe that papers published in the face of the whole town should be noting but magazines of lies, every one of which fifty persons could contradict and disprove? Yet so it certainly is, and future history will probably be ten times falser than all preceding.” – Horace Walpole, 1782 [1]

image1Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London (Bloomsbury, 2014) is the first book by Richard Ward, formerly a research associate on the Leicester University project Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse, and now working on the Digital Panopticon project run by the universities of Liverpool and Sheffield.

I was eager to read this book, having done some research myself into 18th century print culture; I have previously given a paper on the coverage of domestic violence cases in 18th century newspapers and periodicals, and am currently working on a paper looking at a different aspect of crime reporting.

I have long recognised the similarities between parts of 18th century news reporting and the excesses of 20th and early 21st century tabloid journalism.

Stories are stretched, exaggerated, or given undue prominence, to sneer at individuals or competitors, or to stir up public feeling.

Reading the Daily Mail and its seemingly endless stories about immigration and terrorism sometimes feels little different to reading certain stories in the 18th century press, which whipped the public up into ‘moral panics’ about the state of England and the crime rate in their local area.

Ward recognises this early on, pointing out:

“the significant impact of media in creating and shaping panics through increased reporting of crimes, exaggeration, the distortion of events to fit a particular theme, the portrayal of rumours as fact and the creation of negative and fearful stereotypes.” [2]

The main focus of Ward’s book is on the trial reports of the Old Bailey, where he is able to utilise the fantastic online resource The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

But he also looks at other forms of print culture, from books to newspapers, to analyse the links between the printed word and 18th century forms of prosecution and punishment.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Ward’s exploration of how the press covered crimes. He finds that different sections of the press responded differently, some by critiquing the criminal justice system, while others backed it.

This reflected both the timescales of newspaper production and the ways in which papers got their stories, with agents appearing to be based at particular places of justice and getting the bulk of their stories from that single location.

The book also shows that differences in patterns of reporting crime across different newspaper titles was a result of how publications chose to focus on different kinds of offences, with some papers concentrating on street and highway robberies, which were more likely to remain unsolved and thus present negative connotations of justice to the reader.

Ward offers an ‘alternative’ view on how the press covered crime compared to Esther Snell‘s previous analysis of the 18th century press, which focused on The Kentish Post. [3] He shows that although the press did publicise the failings of the judicial system, it also covered policing in a more positive manner.

He emphasises Shoemaker’s point that although the proceedings of the Old Bailey did not misreport events, by omitting details, such trial reports ‘were constructed to present a positive image of justice’. [4]

Ward concentrates on a tight period of history – the mid 18th century, a fascinating time that saw a growth in crime reporting, subsequent moral panics about crime, and the impact of the end of the War of Austrian Succession, which saw rapid demobilisation cause unemployment and an increase in crime in some areas.

By concentrating on a limited time span, he is able to study changes in reporting in depth, and offers some food for thought about the operation of the 18th century press and its effect on public perceptions of law and order.

References

1: Letter to the Rev Mr Cole (21 June 1782) in The Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, Volume 6 (Richard Bentley, London, 1840), page 176

2: Richard M Ward, Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London (Bloomsbury, London, 2014), p.14

3: Esther Snell, “Discourses of criminality in the eighteenth-century press: the presentation of crime in the Kentish Post, 1717-1768”, Continuity & Change, 22:1 (2007), pp.13-47

4: Richard M Ward, Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London (Bloomsbury, London, 2014), p.142

The Magistrates Who Banned Bonfire Night

220px-Guy_Fawkes_by_CruikshankI was intrigued to see Justin Pollard‘s feature on the history of Bonfire Night on the BBC History website – and, more particularly, his mention of how Guildford magistrates were targeted by Bonfire Night pranksters in Victorian times. Magistrates being the subject of my PhD, I thought I’d investigate further.

On 21 November 1863, there was a riot in Guildford, resulting in the loss or destruction of a substantial amount of property.

The riot was a result of Bonfire Night celebrations – or rather, as the result of NOT celebrating. It emerged that certain local residents, and particularly one local magistrate, were hostile to residents celebrating the night, and had ordered that the usual demonstrations on 5 November should not take place.

This was a class issue; the press reported that the festivities were normally participated in by ‘certain classes in the town and neighbourhood’, whereas the objectors were ‘gentlemen’.

A troop of soldiers from Aldershot were ordered to come and protect the town; they did so, and the Bonfire Night activities did not take place. Bad feeling, though, rose instead.

The soldiers left Guildford on 19 November, and the townspeople started making plans. This had been predicted; many people had argued that:

‘as soon as the soldiers were withdrawn, the “guys” would come out.” [1]

At 11.30pm on 21 November, a group of men dressed as Guy Fawkes, carrying fireworks and bludgeons, assembled just outside the town at Stoke’s Fields.

Not an image of the Guildford riot, but it conjures up what it might have been like!

Not an image of the Guildford riot, but it conjures up what it might have been like!

They made their way down the Stoke Road to the houses of Mr Impey and Mr Bowyer, two special constables, and promptly smashed all their windows – a common means in the 17th and 18th centuries of making a political disagreement known, or to intimidate an individual [2].

The group – which had now become a large ‘mob’ – then marched towards Guildford, comprehensively destroying the exterior of a shop belonging to linen draper Mr Weale. His shop was said to have been targeted because it was situated just yards from where the town’s bonfire had traditionally been lit.

KENRG9_427_429-0365But there was another reason that Weale was targeted. He was probably Joseph Weale, described in the census two years earlier as a silk mercer based on Guildford High Street. Joseph Weale was also a magistrate – and is likely to have had a key role in the original banning of the bonfire.

His shutters, Venetian blinds, were destroyed, as were his plate-glass shop front and upper windows. Fireworks were then fired into the shop, and the damage was estimated at around £200, or around £8,600 today.

65-year-old Henry Piper was next in line. He was the chief magistrate of the borough, as well as being a former town mayor, and was, like Joseph Weale, deemed responsible for the ban on bonfire festivities.

After refusing to pay a ‘bribe’, and pleading to be spared as his wife was recovering from an illness, he found his house on Merrow Road in Stoke treated in a similar way. His front door was smashed in, and all the windows destroyed.

His house was only saved from being burnt to the ground by the speedy actions of his servants and neighbours, who ran round with buckets of water.

Meanwhile, another group, comprising special constables and volunteers, some fro the 24th Surrey Rifles, had assembled, ringing the town hall bell to raise other people to help them.

One constable, by the name of Sutton, was severely beaten by the rioters, although the press implied that it was his own fault for watching whilst the mob attacked Mr Weale’s shop, without doing anything to prevent it.

After the mob had done as much damage as they could to Mr Piper’s house, they dispersed back into the night, throwing their bludgeons and disguises into the street as they ran.

Three days later, none of them had been captured or even identified, although one newspaper argued that as they were ‘very well known’ in the town, they would soon be:

‘brought before the magistrates, and large rewards will be offered for the discovery and conviction of any other ringleaders.’ [3]

In the meantime, reported the press,

‘Guildford continues in a state of the greatest alarm and excitement.’ [4]

Even into the 21st century, there has been discussion about whether to ban Bonfire Night celebrations (see here and here, for example) – but the experience of the Surrey magistrates 150-odd years ago shows that it wouldn’t go down very well…

Sources:

1: The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 24 November 1863

2: Robert Shoemaker, The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth Century England (A&C Black, 2004), 122

3: The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 24 November 1863

4: The Leeds Mercury, 24 November 1863

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