Crime sites open for Heritage Days

The Bramhall stocks in Cheshire – image from the Stockport Image Archive, taken from Wikipedia

This weekend sees the annual Heritage Open Days take place across Britain, and it’s a great opportunity for everyone who’s interested in the history of crime to access sites relevant to our history of crime and punishment.

The Illingworth stocks – photo by Alexander P Kapp, from Geograph

For example, if you’re near Illingworth in Yorkshire, you can visit the town’s Regency-era gaol and 17th century double (two-seater) stocks (see here for details), and find out more about plans to restore the gaol, together with stories of those who were once held in the gaol.

The gaol is open on both Saturday and Sunday, with tours taking place every 20 minutes (and see here for more details of how one group is trying to preserve both the gaol and stocks).

Unfortunately, unless you’re very quick, you’ll be too late for this afternoon’s walk round Leeds, to find out about the Victorian police constable’s beat (why wasn’t this on at the weekend?!).

Warrington police station, by Richard Vince, on Geograph

However, you can visit the Museum of Policing in Cheshire – located in Warrington – where you can look at the Victorian cells at Warrington Police Station, and find out about the history of policing in Cheshire since 1883. This is open on Saturday, from 10am until 4pm.

Throughout the weekend, there are walks taking place in Hexham, Northumberland, focusing on the town’s House of Correction, with its separate exercise yards and accommodation for each gender.

In Oxfordshire, you can visit the County Police Station in Abingdon, which was built in the 1850s, and see the original police cells. The station is only open on Saturday, from 10.30 until 4pm.

There are undoubtedly lots of other sites to visit; have a search on the Heritage Open Days website, or search local listings, to find out more.

A journey round HMP Shepton Mallet

A bit of publicity on the local news always helps, and it was an item on the television about a ghost being spotted by staff at a former Somerset prison that got me in the car to go and visit it. Now, I have to say upfront that I don’t believe in ghosts in any way, shape or form (I annoy anyone I watch Most Haunted with by hooting with laughter for much of it), but it was the mention that the prison was open to visitors for a limited time before being redeveloped that made me drop my work and travel down to the south-west.

HMP Shepton Mallet, located near the centre of the Somerset town, closed in 2013 after a four-century history, and is due to be developed into flats (the BBC has covered consultations into its future). However, until works begin next year, the prison is being opened on a regular basis for public tours. These are run by Jailhouse Tours, which bills itself as providing the ‘most immersive tours’ of recently closed jails (it also runs similar tours of Shrewsbury and Gloucester prisons).

Don’t be concerned about the word ‘immersive’, however. Although the company offers a fully-guided two hour trip round the prison, accompanied by a former prison officer, you can also wander round on your own, if you prefer – and in this case, ‘immersive’ simply means wandering round wherever you want, in a prison where few concessions have been made for the dark tourist, which is, in my opinion, a good thing.

Those former prisons that have been permanently opened up to visitors inevitably shape, curate and present a certain narrative, with various levels of success. For every Kilmainham Gaol – where, although there are exhibitions and guides, you still get a clear sense of the bleakness and tedium of life inside – there is a Littledean Jail (porn and titillation in a former House of Correction). But here, you see a prison in varying levels of decay, abandoned and left as it was, with different stages of its history exposed.

There is damp and mould; peeling walls and smells emanating from the urinals and showers. You can crawl into a 17th century cell – rediscovered years after being boarded up – or visit the 20th century gymnasium. You see the changing nature of criminal justice, the inhumanity of aspects of prison life, and sense how horrific it must have been to be in the exercise yard, in the fresh air, yet surrounded by the high walls and barred windows of the prison on all sides.

It’s not cheap to visit; and if you want everything explained to you via flashy interpretation boards, don’t go (here, things to look at are pointed out on laminated sheets of A4 stuck on doors, due to the temporary nature of the tour). But the staff are both welcoming and genuinely interested in the site, and there’s free tea and coffee in the old visiting rooms… and, more importantly, it’s a rare opportunity to see so many centuries of criminal history before the developers take over.

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Distracted by a criminal past

One of the perhaps inevitable side-effects of being a crime historian is that wherever I go, I get distracted by a place’s criminal history.

Recently, I’ve been to both Hereford and Worcester on work trips, and both times, I’ve come across parts of its darker history by complete accident, with no knowledge beforehand of what I was walking towards.

In Hereford, Gaol Street is in the city centre, and is home to a building that is immediately obvious as a place related to law and order. This is the ‘new gaol’, built in 1841, but which only served as a gaol for some 30 years.

Most of it was subsequently demolished, but that which remained became part of the old city magistrates’ court (thanks to Herefordshire Past for this information).

Meanwhile, in Worcester, I stopped to take a photograph of the pretty Laslett’s Almshouses, only to spot a sign on the gate stating that these were built on the site of the old city gaol. British History Online notes that in the 17th century, Greyfriars was used as the gaol, before being pulled down and replaced by the almshouses.

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However, Greyfriars still exists today and is run by the National Trust; is this building what BHO describes as ‘a fine two-storied building of timber’ that was possibly the Greyfriars’ guest house? I’m not sure, as the NT describes ‘its’ Greyfriars as a medieval merchant’s house built by Thomas Grene, but perhaps a local reader could clarify this for me!

Lastly, there is a rather lovely building tucked away on Copenhagen Street in Worcester; this served as the police headquarters for the city from 1862 to 1941.

‘Police station’ is still clearly inscribed above the door, but there is also a plaque to the right hand side marking the formation of the City of Worcester Police Force in 1833 (info from Elliott Brown on Flickr).

Today, these sites are architecturally interesting and part of the ‘dark tourism’ that can be undertaken in many towns and cities in England; but it’s also possible to imagine these places, not so long ago, being busy and dramatic buildings, full of action and movement – where our ancestors may have spent time, whether as law enforcers or law breakers.


London Lives: Talking about poverty and crime in the capital

UnknownI’ve had the pleasure of reviewing Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker’s new book, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (CUP, 2015) – and interviewing Tim about it – for the November issue of Your Family Tree. I can highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of crime or the history of London.

Here are the authors themselves talking about the publication, from outside the London Metropolitan Archives (thanks to @ourcriminalpast for the hat-tip!):


The November issue of Your Family Tree will be out at the end of October.

Dressing the Criminal, Stealing the Dress

Annie Wilson, admitted to Dorchester Prison in 1900 (Dorset History Centre, via
Annie Wilson, admitted to Dorchester Prison in 1900 (Dorset History Centre, via

When I was applying for university at 18, I originally intended to study fashion design, gaining a place at the London College of Fashion. Although I ended up doing something completely different, my interest in fashion history has remained.

This links to my work in criminal history, in that I am fascinated by what people wore in the past, and in particular, what criminals wore and what they stole in terms of clothing.

Clothing the elite: fashions on display at the V&A.
Clothing the elite: fashions on display at the V&A.

There’s plenty of evidence for what the elite wore – the paintings that adorn the walls of country houses show us.

The clothes that get preserved and exhibited in museums (such as the ones in the Victoria and Albert Museum) again tend to be those of the higher echelons of society.

But what about the poor, the marginalised members of society? One of the historians who has made the biggest inroads into this area is John Styles, with his book The Dress of the People, which includes a section on the clothes that criminals stole, and what these can tell us about what was seen as fashionable, popular, or what these people would have worn themselves.

The Old Bailey Proceedings detail the clothing stolen by individuals, in varying amount of detail. In 1692, for example, Abraham Stacey was indicted for theft, having stolen:

“One stuff Gown value 10s, one woman’s hood Dress, value 15s, another Scarf value 40s, a Feather Tippet, value 5s.” (Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 15 January 1692)

The status of the woman who the goods belonged to, a Jane Browne, is not known, but the goods were both valuable and valued. This is not your average plebeian woman’s wardrobe. Abraham, who stole the clothing, was a cook – a servant – and had stolen clothing that could be sold on.

The Old Bailey Proceedings do show that particular items of clothing were popular targets for thieves at different times. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, women’s hoods and muslin head-dresses, ruffles and pieces of lace were popular items to steal, together with Holland aprons.

In the late 18th century, bonnets, damask shoes, striped muslin aprons, silk dresses and petticoats were itemised; these were not only goods that thieves coveted or thought valuable – they were what Londoners were buying and wearing.

The poorer members of society coveted what their ‘betters’ wore; so in 1768, a female servant bought clothing with money she had stolen from her mistress, and was spotted “dress’d in gauze and a black apron, and other things, with a new gown.”

Of course, by the late Victorian era, photos were being routinely taken of criminals, which really bring to life what ordinary people were wearing in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Elizabeth Clode in 1890 (Dorset History Centre/
Elizabeth Clode in 1890 (Dorset History Centre/

The photo of Annie Wilson, at the top of this post, shows her wearing a distinctive double-breasted coat or jacket.

Elizabeth Clode, left, admitted to Dorchester in 1890, has some striking buttons on her top.

The wealth – or lack of it – is also visible in prison photos, with some men wearing waistcoats and relatively tidy jackets, whereas others are in torn coats and dirty neckerchiefs.

What does all of this show? Well, it shows that people have always been interested in fashion, in looking fashionable. It shows that crimes have been committed because of fashion – its monetary value, and envy of those who can afford it.

It’s also evident how one’s social status and financial worth have been made explicit through clothing in history. The exhibitions of eighteenth-century dress at the V&A are a world away from the prisoners’ mugshots online at Ancestry.

But both show the importance of dress to our ancestors – both to the poor and to the rich, to thieves and their victims – and what it can tell us about their position in society.

Committing perjury for your master

William Hogarth's "Servants"
William Hogarth’s “Servants”

One case that came before magistrate William Bromley in Warwickshire in the late 17th century showed the pressure that servants could be placed under by their masters.

In 1695, Anne Wilcox, servant to Thomas Avery in Kenilworth, had appeared as a witness at a trial. The initial prosecution had been brought by Avery against a local surgeon, Mr Smith, although the reasons for the prosecution do not survive.

The trial, at the Warwickshire Lent Assizes, had involved Anne positively identifying Smith as a man she had met on an earlier occasion, whilst out on her own.

However, on 27 July 1695, Anne approached William Bromley and admitted that she had committed perjury at the trial.

She said that Avery had put her under substantial pressure to identify Smith, even though she had never met him.

She had told Avery that “she durst not do it, nor would not”, arguing to her master that she risked ruining her reputation by saying in court that she had been alone with Smith – “many wifes’ heads would turn and wind her”.

Avery, though, told Anne that it was “no sin” and pressured her until she gave in – presumably she feared that she would lose her job if she refused her master his request.

Her conscience had soon afterwards pricked her, though, and she had subsequently reported her master – and herself – for falsely swearing against Smith.

On 9 August 1695, the magistrate formally discharged Anne from her service with Avery, noting that she was leaving her employment having accused her master of making her commit “wilful and corrupt perjury”.

Anne was not punished by Bromley for committing perjury, but perhaps he was being charitable, seeing that she was being punished in other ways – her position was untenable and she had lost her job as a result of her conscience.

Avery also refused to pay Anne the wages he owed her – and later had to appear at Quarter Sessions to be forced to settle with her.

He, however, appears to have got away with his attempts to frame the surgeon – apart from the loss of a servant who had been loyal enough to him to risk losing her reputation.

Source: The notebook of William Bromley of Baginton, Warwickshire Record Office CRO103.

The Roaring Girl: How the RSC failed to convince me that Moll Cutpurse was a Victorian drag king

I went to see the RSC’s The Roaring Girl, directed by Jo Davies, recently – and was rather unimpressed by its assertion that this Jacobean play – and petty criminal heroine – was more about Victorian gender-bending than the society in which it was originally set.

Moll Cutpurse
Moll Cutpurse

Moll Cutpurse was a 17th century pickpocket, an infamous member of the London underworld, a woman who revelled in her reputation, swearing, smoking a pipe, and being the subject of plays even within her own lifetime.

She undoubtedly challenged gender conventions of the time, and was punished for it, being charged with dressing indecently in 1611 and having to do penance a year later for ‘evil living’. She accepted mens’ bets to dress as a man, acted as a pimp, and was infamous for her actions.

Yet she was also seen as rather a glamorous creature. She performed in public to eager audiences, and the fact that plays were written about her suggests that the public wanted to hear and see more of her.

She has become a larger than life figure, mythologised to the extent that it is no longer known what is real and what is fiction. But she remains very much of her time – a Jacobean woman who lived life on her own terms.

One of the most famous plays written about Moll is Dekker and Middleston’s The Roaring Girl, written in the first decade of the 17th century, while Moll was still in her 20s. The title derives from the ‘roaring boy’, a contemporary slang term for men who partied, fought, and carried out petty crimes.

Moll is depicted as an object of horror to the older characters, but is also depicted with sympathy – it is assumed that because she is unconventional, she must be a whore; Moll puts the character of Laxton, who attempts to pay her for sex, in his place about this.

She also admits to Sebastian that she is uninterested in sex and has no intention of marrying. She also later states her aim of protecting the innocent from crime due to her insight into the criminal class.

Moll is clearly seen as a morally superior woman to the more socially acceptable Prudence Gallipot, the apothecary’s wife, who is carrying on an affair with Laxton, and who lies to her husband in order to get money for her lover.

To me, Moll and The Roaring Girl is of its time. It shows how 17th century women could defy gender stereotypes and be strong, independent women who challenged convention. She is no caricature, but a feisty individual who survives as she can.

Yet the RSC has decided otherwise. Their production of The Roaring Girl turns Moll into a fey cross-dresser, mimicking male behaviour – including the way she walks and sits – with a few nods to lesbianism.

But also, they’ve decided that Moll’s life in Jacobean England is just not sexy or relevant enough, and so have decided to make her a Victorian heroine, and a caricature of one at that.

This Roaring Girl is all about Victorian ideals of femininity and how Moll rejects those ideals, ripping off her boned bustle to reveal trousers, and strutting around the men in their bowler hats and plaid jackets. The programme stresses the Victorian context of their production, complete with a timeline of 19th century history.

But Moll is not Victorian, and Victorian society is not Jacobean society. Moll is not universal, she does not transcend the centuries. The reaction to her actions was not unmitigated horror, a fear of her making men look weak and insipid; she was a figure of interest, as shown by the plays written in her lifetime and the performances she put on.

Her offences were typical of her period, and carried out during a time when execution was a real threat to even petty thieves. By the 1890s – when this production is set – that fear had rescinded due to Victorian sensibilities over the effectiveness of hanging (where executions were carried out far less, particularly if you were female, and in Britain, held in private post-1868).

Anne Bonny
Anne Bonny

And Moll was no camp cross-dresser. She disguised herself for bets, or to gain some purpose, and she was not unique in pre-Victorian times – look at the likes of Anne Bonny and Mary Read in the 18th century, for example.

She was not surrounded by meek women carrying parasols (as she is in the RSC production). She was a complex character, a petty criminal, an extrovert – not a pariah or an object of derision but of interest and excitement.

She showed how Jacobean society included a variety of people, and how women could be surprisingly modern.

Perhaps the problem lies more in how Jacobean society is perceived today. Victorians are more sexy, more immediate to audiences.

We relate to them more, because they are more recent, because we have photographs showing what they looked like, diaries and books in abundance from those living in the era. Our knowledge of the 17th century requires more help, more research – it is more shadowy.

And yet, perhaps the RSC recognised that its depiction of Moll as a Victorian lady challenging stereotypes of the submissive woman was difficult to justify, and hence its odd inclusion of rock music, breakdancing, characters playing electric guitars and rapping.

I particularly objected to the rapping – for the characters stated that they were actually ‘canting’. Canting was the slang used by thieves, such as the word ‘frummagemm’d’ to denote being hanged. I recognised that the director was trying to show how different sections of society develop a type of communication that gives them a sense of identity – but rap?! In a Victorian setting?

But just as it makes no sense to include breakdancing randomly into a Victorian setting, it also makes no sense to put Moll into such a setting, either.

I can’t do better than to quote the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer, who described the moden touches as making a ‘mockery’ of the production’s already ‘unnecessary Victorian setting’ and the Evening Standard’s Henry Hitchings who pointed out that the relocation to the late Victorian era was ‘to no great advantage’.

I was relieved that critics had felt the same way as I; it is not necessary to shoehorn events from earlier into the Victorian era.

Not everything is timeless, and sometimes it’s OK to say that women – criminal women, cross-dressing women, or just, say, WOMEN in general – in the 17th century were complex, interesting, and fascinating, and don’t need to be turned into Victorians to make them so.

For my review of Arden of Faversham, another of the RSC’s crime-related productions in its Roaring Girl season, click here.

Thoughts on being a magistrate, by Samuel Pepys

170px-Samuel_Pepys_by_Sir_Godfrey_Kneller_1689On 25 June 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded that he and his wife Elisabeth had travelled to Dorset House ‘to deliver a list of the names of the justices of peace for Huntingdonshire’.

This is the first, but not the last, references to the magistracy in Pepys’ diary. The Pepys family were good citizens and both politically aware and involved. Samuels great uncle, Talbot Pepys, was MP for Cambridge in the 1620s; his father’s cousin, Sir Richard Pepys was MP for Sudbury two decades later. Pepys himself became an MP later in his life.

But the Pepys family were also involved in the law at a local level, as this June entry suggests.

Pepys was employed by the Navy Board, and it was common for navy officers to be made magistrates for those counties where the royal dockyards were based. Accordingly, on 24 September 1660, Pepys was sworn in as an ex officio justice of the peace for Middlesex, Kent, Essex and Hampshire.  He was aged 27. He recorded the day in his diary:

“there at Sir Heneage Finch Sollicitor General’s Chambers, before him and Sir W. Wilde, Recorder of London (whom we sent for from his chamber) we were sworn justices of peace for Middlesex, Essex, Kent and Southampton; with which honour I find myself mightily pleased…”

Interestingly, Pepys took on this role despite being, as he admitted ‘wholly ignorant in the duties of a justice of peace.’

Luckily for Pepys, there was help available, both from friends and acquaintances, and from the likes of Michael Dalton’s manual, The Country Justice, which had first been published in 1618.

It certainly seems as though Pepys got to grips with his justicing work quickly, for three months after being appointed, on Tuesday 11 December 1660, Pepys noted that he travelled by barge to Woolwich, where he met with a Captain Stoakes, who was ‘very melancholy’, suspecting that some of his clothes and money had been stolen from his cabin on board a ship there. A sailor was suspected of the theft, and Pepys recorded:

“I did the first office of a justice of Peace to examine a seaman thereupon, but could find no reason to commit him.”

Pepys’ role as justice of the peace largely involved examining individuals and signing warrants, as the above case indicates. On one occasion, he overstepped his legal jurisdiction; he sent a man named Field to prison, for ‘some ill words he did give the office’ – only to be later notified that he had no right to, as Field should have been dealt with by a City of London magistrate, whereas Pepys was a Middlesex JP with no jurisdiction over the Square Mile.

A lawsuit was brought against Pepys, – he was served a subpoena at his office on 4 February 1662 – which caused him great concern. The matter was only resolved eight months later, when Nicholas Lechmere, a councillor at Temple, advised Pepys that a verdict had found against him – and he would have to pay £30 damages as a result (Diary, 21 October 1662).

A Wordle of Pepys’ diary entries relating to the magistracy

Pepys read the news-sheets keenly, enjoying the tales of crime and punishment therein. On 25 February 1662 he read a story based on an examination of Charles, Lord Buckhurst, and his friends before a Justice of the Peace, ‘wherein they make themselves a very good tale that they were in pursuit of thieves’, and, thinking another man was a thief, promptly killed him.

Pepys clearly disbelieved the tale, but recognised the inherent unfairness in the criminal justice system that meant men of title and wealth would be given a sympathetic hearing at trial – ‘I doubt things will be proved otherwise than they say’. Pepys interest in the story reflected his spotting of stories involving magistrates, crime and the law; but also his interest in a good bit of tabloid-style gossip.

In March 1663, Sir Richard Ford – ‘a very able man of his brains and tongue’ – argued to the Lord Mayor of London that he and Pepys should be made JPs for the City, but although the Lord Mayor (‘a talking, bragging, buffleheaded fellow’) consented to the idea, Pepys suspected that he would change his mind the next day (Diary, 17 March 1663).

That did not appear to have happened, for five days later, on a quiet Sunday, Pepys recorded that he ‘Wrote out our bill for the Parliament about our being made Justices of the Peace in the City’ (Diary, 22 March 1663).

This took time to be passed, though; it was only on 25 January 1667 that Pepys was able to record, ‘and also our little Bill, for giving any of us in the [navy] office the power of justice of peace, is done as I would have it’.

Pepys’ diary shows that magistrates were called on to help with a variety of tasks. On one occasion, a magistrate was asked to help shut up the Exchange, at the request of the King (Diary, 22 December 1663); on another occasion, the magistrates requested Pepys and two others to go to the local vestry to do ‘something for the keeping of the plague from growing’ (Diary, 3 September 1665). The men sat and worked out some ‘orders for the prevention thereof.’

And despite Pepys’ original ignorance of the duties of a magistrate, it was clear that JPs soon picked up a knowledge of the law as it related to the them and their role, even if they did not have that originally. During a discussion with another magistrate, Sir Thomas Clifford, he told Pepys that he was ‘of little learning more than the law of a justice of peace; which he knows well’ (Diary, 26 April 1667).

On 1 May 1666, Pepys recorded a visit from his cousin Thomas, who wanted to ask him about the role of justice of the peace. He had been asked to become a magistrate for Kent, but pointed out that although he was ‘of Deptford parish’, his house was actually within Surrey’s borders.

He also pointed out that he could not read Latin, so might not be able to do the job as all warrants were written out in Latin at that time (Pepys, of course, was adept at Latin). In addition, he was reluctant to ‘exercise punishment according to the Act against Quakers and other people, for religion.’

But Pepys encouraged him to accept the position if he was ‘pressed to take it’, because he thought it would reflect well on him having a family member as Kentish JP.

Pepys took his role as magistrate seriously; but it is also clear that he saw it as having a social caché, and so was keen not only to serve himself, but to be seen to have relatives acting as justices too.

The "Golden Age" of Sedition: #ESSHC2014

From "True reform of parliament" by James Gillray
From “True reform of parliament” by James Gillray


“Sedition: conduct or language inciting to rebellion against the constituted authority in a state” – Oxford English Dictionary

Last week, I was in Vienna at the biannual European Social Science History Conference (ESSHC) – known by the hashtag #ESSHC2014 on Twitter.

One of the most interesting papers I attended was one by Peter Rushton on The Rise and Fall of Seditious Words in England, 1550-1750. I have found his articles on the magistracy – written with Gwenda Morgan – incredibly interesting (and very useful within the context of my own PhD on the rural magistracy), and his paper was equally so.

The paper looked not just at what was sedition, but at how it was dealt with at a local level, looking particularly at magistrates in northern England as, according to Rushton, “magistrates WERE the local government” in Early Modern England.

Sedition arose from a belief that the reputation of rulers had to be preserved, and as part of the criminal law, the Star Chamber could punish all forms of attack on a king or his ministers, whether written, spoken, sung, or drawn (such as in a political cartoon).

Truth was no defence; if a statement was seen as dangerous to the social and political order, then it was deemed to be seditious, whether based on truth or not. It was even possible to prosecute for sedition if the victim of it were dead – such as if the defendant had insulted the king’s parentage (see Burn, Vol 3, 250, where he states ‘the offence is the same, whether the person libelled be alive or dead’).

By a local extension of the law, Rushton argued, it could also be sedition to insult a provincial Justice of the Peace, as subordinates of the monarch were protected. Richard Burn discussed this in his handbook for magistrates, The Justice of the Peace, differentiating between libel and genuine discussion:

“Although it is an aggravated misdemeanour to publish an invective against judges and juries with a view to bring into suspicion and contempt the administration of justice in the country, still it is lawful with candour and decency to discuss the merits of the verdict of the jury or the decisions of a judge.” (The Justice of the Peace, Vol 3, 250)

But could magistrates be the victims of sedition? Or were they instead slandered? And what was the different between slander and sedition?

Rushton noted that “all seditious speech was scandalous, but not all scandalous speech was seditious”. He detailed the language used in various cases, but said it was hard to work out from the words used or who the victim was, just what was sedition and what wasn’t.

The prosecution of sedition was, though, less about the exact words used, and more to do with how wide an audience heard the allegations, or whether disorder could result from that particular use of words. Despite there being evidence of allegations made against magistrates – such as a 1650s example given by Rushton, “The justices you run to are tyrants” – many acts of defiance of local orders issued by JPs were not defined as seditious.

In fact, defamatory words uttered against local magistrates and mayors were not treated as sedition, even if they reflected badly on them, so Rushton believes that there was a tolerance of some words and acts. There is little evidence of sedition proceedings brought by magistrates – because they were attempting to defend the dignity of the magistracy rather than the state, Rushton argued, they may have treated cases as insults instead of sedition.

They were vulnerable to personal attacks, but the personal should be stressed; magistrates tended to face down the insults rather than making it a bigger deal by prosecuting, thus preserving their dignity.

In addition, in terms of the audience hearing a seditious comment, witnesses were often the people who brought a sedition case. Yet few would hear the words uttered about a magistrate in his justicing room, so unless he was willing to bring the case, thus publicising the comments, he might have decided to keep quiet about it.

Burn failed to differentiate between libel and sedition in his guidance, his main advice being:

“Libels on persons employed in a public capacity receive an aggravation as they tend to scandalise the government by reflecting on those who are entrusted with the administration of public affairs; for they not only endanger the public peace…by stirring up the parties immediately concerned to acts of revenge, but also have a direct tendency to breed in the people a dislike of their governors, and incline them to faction and sedition.” (The Justice of the Peace, Vol 3, 249)

In this statement, it can be seen that there was a blurred line between libel and sedition, but that sedition could be seen as a more active, political form of libel that risked disrupting an orderly society.

Rushton argued that, in the later part of this period, the rise of print culture replaced anxiety about the spoken word. There was more of a fear of rumour being spread by news sheets, via coffee-houses, from London and out into the provinces. Official priorities therefore were redirected from the spoken word to the dangers of print and the written word, with printers and writers being prosecuted.

Rushton concluded by saying that the focus on the written word, and on printing, has meant that speech has been neglected. Likewise, the “local” needs examining – what was happening away from the London-based print prosecutions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries?

The century between 1650 and 1750 was, Rushton said, a “golden” age of seditious speech – and as such, I believe it was also a fascinating age.




15 Punishments We Used To Think Were Acceptable

Condamné_à_la_potence_lpdpI’d forgotten I had done this, but I did a quick list for Buzzfeed (on its community section).

So to see my list of 15 punishments we used to think were acceptable, click here.

Not an in-depth look at crime and punishment, but an, um, lighter-hearted look at execution and such like.