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Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

Inquiring readers: Paul Emanuelli, author of Avon Street, has contributed a post for this blog before about the City of Bath as a Character. He has graciously sent in an article about crime and an incident involving Jane Austen’s aunt, Mrs James Leigh-Perrot. Paul writes about Bath in his own blog, unpublishedwriterblog. It is well worth a visit!

Arrest of a woman at night, 1800. Thomas Rowlandson. Image @The Proceedings of the Old Bailey

Apart from the Bow Street Runners in London there was no organised police force in 18th Century England. The capture and prosecution of criminals was largely left to their victims to deal with. Every parish was obliged to have one or two constables, but they were unpaid volunteers working only in their spare time. A victim of crime who wanted a constable to track down and arrest the perpetrator was expected to pay the expenses of their doing so.

Sometimes victims of crime hired a thief-taker to pursue the wrong-doer. Again, they were private individuals working much like latter day bounty hunters. Sometimes, thief-takers would act as go-betweens, negotiating the return of stolen goods for a fee. Many though were corrupt, actually initiating and organising the original theft in order to claim the reward for the return of goods, or extorting protection money from the criminals they were supposed to catch.

Covent Garden watchhouse. Image @The Proceedings of the Old Bailey

For the most part, unless a criminal was “caught in the act” (probably) by their intended victim it was unlikely they would be brought to justice. In the absence of a police force, the maintenance of “Law and Order” therefore came to depend more on deterrence rather than apprehension and the harshest penalty of all came to cover more and more crimes. In 1799 there were 200 offences that carried the death penalty, including the theft of items with a monetary value that exceeded five shillings.

In practice, judges and juries often recognised the barbarity of the punishment in relation to the crime. Juries might determine that goods were over-priced and bring their value down below the five shilling threshold. Defendants might claim “benefit of clergy” which by virtue of stating religious belief and reading out an oath allowed the judge to exercise leniency. In other cases the Government could review the sentence. Between 1770 and 1830, 35,000 death sentences were handed down in England and Wales, but only 7000 executions were actually carried out.

Milliners shop, after Henry Kingsbury

On the 8th August 1799, Jane Leigh-Perrot was accused of stealing a card of white lace from a millinery shop in Bath. The Leigh-Perrots, a wealthy couple, were Jane Austen’s mother’s brother and sister-in-law (Jane’s Uncle and Aunt). The white lace valued at £1 was found in Mrs Leigh-Perrot’s possession together with a card of black lace that she had bought and paid for from the same shop. Mrs Leigh-Perrot denied stealing the lace, saying that the sales clerk must have given it her by mistake when he handed over her purchase. She was nevertheless arrested on a charge of “grand theft” and the lace she was said to have stolen was worth four times the five shillings that carried the death sentence.

Jane Cholmeley Perrot, aka Jane Austen’s Aunt Perrot

In practice it was unlikely (given her standing) that if she had been found guilty she would have been sentenced to death. The alternatives, however, included branding or transportation to the Australian Colonies with the prospect of forced labour for 14 years. Jane Leigh-Perrot was refused bail and committed to prison on the sworn depositions of the shopkeeper. Due to her wealth, social standing and age she was allowed to stay in the house of the prison keeper, Mr Scadding, at the Somerset County Gaol in Ilchester, rather than being kept in a cell. Mrs Leigh-Perrot still wrote though that she suffered ‘Vulgarity, Dirt, Noise from morning till night’. James Leigh-Perrot insisted on remaining with her in prison.

Mr James Leigh-Perrot. Image @JASA

During her trial Jane Leigh-Perrot spoke eloquently for herself. Several testimonials as to her character were also read out to the court. At the conclusion of the trial the jury took only 10 minutes to find her “Not Guilty.” It does, however, make you wonder how someone less well refined, less well-connected, less eloquent, less educated, less wealthy might have fared. The evidence of her guilt, might have been quite sufficient to send someone else to the gallows, or transported, or branded with a hot iron. She was after all caught in possession of the item and identified by the shop-keeper. In “Persuasion” Captain Harville asks Anne Elliot, ‘But how shall we prove anything?’ Anne replies, ‘We never shall.’

Mrs. Leigh-Perrot. Image @JASA

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Vendors set up their carts and booths hours before execution time, doing a roaring trade selling food, drink, souvenirs, even pornographic material, to a frenzied crowd. Minstrels and jugglers entertained the crowd. With the advent of cheap printing in the 16th and 17th centuries, touts created lurid “broadsheets” detailing the supposed history and scandalous crimes of the victim, the precursors to modern day tabloids. These “broadsheets” sold like hotcakes to an excited audience. – The History of Executions in Olde London Towne– Roy Stevenson

Detail of an execution broadside purchased March 5, 1817. Image @Harvard Law School Library


Life was cheap in Georgian England as this 1817 broadside attests. Five criminals were executed in March 1817 for forgery, burglary, and robbery. Poor Elizabeth Fricker protested her innocence, but to no avail.  Executions were public events, even during Jane Austen’s day, and one wonders if she ever saw a body left to rot on a gibbet, or if she cautiously avoided such sights and averted her eyes.  In any event, crowds would gather early at the execution spot to witness the hanging. They came in droves especially if the execution was of a notorious person.

Vendors set up stalls, selling drinks and refreshments to the large crowd, which, as the Hogarth illustration shows, were stacked on top of each other. The atmosphere must have been festive and somber at the same time, for even though there were jugglers and entertainers to amuse the crowd, a certain “execution” protocol was followed. Criminals were expected to speak to the crowd and to die well.

Broadsides, which were purchased for a pittance (in this instance a penny) described the crimes in detail, and were purchased much like programs to sporting events are purchased today.  Read the entire broadside here. This particular broadside was printed by J. Pitts of Seven Dials. Like other broadsides, it featured an illustration of the execution. Someone (the purchaser?) carefully penned in the date below the image.

Hogarth, 1747. Image @Wikimedia

Persistent Link to the Broadside:
http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HLS.Libr:1087957
Description:
Executions of criminals: more generally known by the uninviting name of “Dying speeches.”. Execution broadside (Andrew Savage, Ben Savage, Thomas Cann, William Kelly, Elizabeth Fricker, James Baker, James Gates)
Page:
(seq. 11)
Repository:
Harvard Law School Library
Institution:
Harvard University
Accessed:
09 June 2011

Other related links:

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Inquiring Readers: Lynn Shepherd, author of  Murder at Mansfield Park, has written this guest post. She lives in in Berkshire, England, with her husband Simon. Murder at Mansfield Park is her first novel, but she’s been a professional copywriter for the last ten years. Going freelance in 2000 gave her the time she needed to see if she could make a dream into a reality. Ten years and two and a half unpublished novels later, it’s finally happened…

There were two big challenges in writing Murder at Mansfield Park, and they’re summed up in the title of the book. The first was creating an accurate and convincing version of Jane Austen’s own language and idiom, and the second (and in many ways the most fun) was producing an authentic Regency murder mystery.

When I started writing, I didn’t know very much about how a violent (and extremely aristocratic) killing would have been investigated in 1811, when the novel is set. I knew there was nothing we would now recognise as a police force –London didn’t get its first ‘bobbies’ until 1829, and the provinces were much later. But as I did more and more research, I realised that people who’d been the victims of a violent crime had precious few alternatives open to them – as one historian has said, the system at the time was extraordinarily ‘fragmented and inept’. There were the parish constables, of course, but this was often little more than an honorary position, and the elderly men who invariably performed the role would have been little or no use faced with a serious crime like rape or murder. So if you didn’t catch the perpetrator red-handed, your only real options were to post a reward for information in the local newspaper, or pay – very handsomely – for someone to conduct an investigation on your behalf.

This is where the ‘thief takers’ came in: private citizens functioning, in effect, as licensed bounty hunters. The profession – if we can call it that – dates back to the 17th century, when Parliament set a scale of ‘no win, no fee’ rewards for the apprehension of ‘most wanted’ criminals, such as coiners or highwaymen. At that time catching a highwayman was worth £40, and you also got to keep his money, weapons, and horse. Thief takers operated in the shadowy world between the criminals and the law, negotiating between thieves and their victims to return stolen goods for a fee (hence the name). The most famous and infamous of them all was the self-styled ‘Thief Taker General of England and Ireland’, Jonathan Wild, who dominated London’s criminal underworld in the early 1720s. He set up an office where victims of robbery could register the details of their lost possessions, which Wild would then undertake to recover. But what many of his clients didn’t realise was that Wild was also running a very lucrative sideline as a receiver of stolen goods, so more often than not he either had their missing property himself already, or knew who did.

It may sound like nice work if you can get it, but thief taking was a notoriously dangerous undertaking – by the time he was hanged in 1725, Wild had two skull fractures and a plate in his head, and had survived having his throat cut. Wild’s notorious career was one of the main reasons why the thief taking system became so unpopular with more law-abiding citizenry – many people felt it caused more crime than it solved, and some thief takers even became ‘thief makers’ by encouraging gullible men to commit crimes, and then informing on them and claiming the reward. But the bald fact was that English criminal justice couldn’t function without them – they got results even if their methods didn’t bear too much scrutiny.

It was this growing public dissatisfaction with the whole thief taking system that led directly to the founding of the Bow Street Runners in 1748. If Tom Jones is Henry Fielding’s great achievement as a novelist, the Runners were the equivalent for his career as a magistrate. Fielding started out as a group of half a dozen ‘official’ thief takers, who he would send out to track down and arrest culprits when a crime was reported. They would often travel across the country in pursuit of their quarries, and some occasionally got involved in solving crimes on the outskirts of London – in the 1780s half a dozen Runners were involved in arrests in Essex, and a Runner called Patrick McManus made £24 from 4 arrests (up to £2,500 in today’s money).

Lynn Shepherd, Author

Thanks largely to the establishment of the Runners, detection became a lot more professional in the second half of the 18th century. By the 1780s they had developed the sort of techniques we would recognize today, including interrogating witnesses, examining crime scenes, and checking alibis. They’re also known to have used ID parades, and to have traced offenders through lodging house receipts, or vehicle registration numbers! One of the more celebrated Runners, Charles Jealous, was even said to be able to tell country mud from city mud on a highwayman’s boots.

My Charles Maddox is a former Runner who’s set up a (very lucrative) business on his own account. He’s also a man very much after Jealous’s heart – more like a modern private investigator, than a thief taker in the strict sense of the term. All the same, he has a very different background and ethical code from the fine folk at Mansfield Park, and bursts upon the elegant Austen landscape with all the force of an asteroid hit…

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Giving alms to debtors in Fleet prison, Rowlandson

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Image Source, Georgian England, Richardson.

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George Barrington, Convicts Arriving at Botany Bay

In the Regency Underworld, written by Donald A. Low, there is a detailed and poignant description of the thousands of poor young boys and girls encouraged to thieve for a living by corrupt and older individuals. Many tiny, but hardened criminals that were caught were transported to penal servitude in Botany Bay in Australia, but many were sentenced to death while still in their teens. In some ways, today’s children in third world countries lead very similar lives.

Thomas Vance, a magistrate from the Union hall police office, whose district include Bermondsey, Brixton, Tooting, and Vauxhall, claimed that many children were deserted by their parents, or badly neglected; poverty was partly to blame, p. 59.

Philip Holdsworth, Marshal of London, responded to this question by Grey Bennet’s committee:

What are the offences that are principally committed by the children? —

Picking pockets; taking things off, on their hands and knees, from shops, such as haberdashers and linen-drapers,; in the winter-time, with a knife at the corner of the glass starring it, and taking things out, which has occasioned the tradespeople having so many guard irons; but still there are shops not so guarded, and they can find opportunities of continually robbing: Boys upon all occasions, when there is any thing which excites a crowd, are very active, and many of them extermely clever; they are short and active, and are generally attended by men, p 60.

To read more on the topic, go to:

Crime and Punishment in Durham, 1750-1900

The History of Crime in England, 1550-1914

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“The Bow Street Runners were the earliest form of detective force operating from the courts to enforce the decisions of magistrates… In 1763 John Fielding introduced the Bow Street horse patrol to make the highways around London safer. Funding lasted for only 18 months. He also became responsible for street lighting and lamp posts in an eighteenth century initiative similar to more modern moves to link street lighting with crime prevention.” Click here for more on this topic.

“One other action which brought about a reduction in crime was the revival in 1805 of the Bow Street Horse Patrol. This consisted of about sixty men whose duty it was to protect travellers on the principal roads whithin sixty miles of London. They were selected with care, and many had previously served in a cavalry regiment. On the main roads, as far out as Epsom, Romford, Enfield and Windsor they created confidence with their clearly spoken greeting, ‘Bow Street Patrol.’ Their single most successful achievement was to rid Houndslow Heath of highwaymen.” From The Regency Underworld, by Donald A. Low.

Quoted from: The Bow Street Runners, Devon and Constabulatory Site:

“When Henry Fielding retired, his half-brother Sir John Fielding took over at Bow Street Court. Sir John had been blind since birth and was known as ‘The Blind Beak’, but despite being blind he was reputed to have known over 3,000 criminals by the sound of their voices. Sir John formed the Bow Street Horse Patrol, men armed with truncheon, cutlass and pistol. These men patrolled London in an area within six miles of Charing Cross and became a familiar sight in their leather hats, blue coats with brass buttons, blue trousers and boots. They too were very successful at their job and eventually rid London of highwaymen. The government decided that they were no longer needed so the Horse Patrol was disbanded – with the result that the Highwaymen returned!”

More about Bow Street Runners

Book Reviews: High and Low in Regency England

Policing in London Before the Bobbies

The History of Policing: The Bow Street Runner

More about Bow Street Runners on the Jane Austen’s World site

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Bow Street Runners

According to The Proceedings of the Old Bailey,

In order to encourage victims to report crimes, magistrates in both the City of London and Middlesex established “rotation offices” in the 1730s where Londoners could be certain of finding a magistrate present at fixed hours. One of these was set up in Bow Street, near Covent Garden, by Sir Thomas De Veil in 1739. ”

In 1748, Henry and John Fieldings introduced a new practice of capturing thieves by

“employing thief-takers as “runners” who, when a crime was reported, could be sent out by the magistrates to detect and apprehend the culprit. Thief-takers, such as William Pentlow, made a living out of the fees they charged for their services and the rewards they obtained from victims for identifying suspects and from the state for successful convictions.”

Click here for The Proceedings of the Old Bailey. This impressive website is a”fully searchable online edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing accounts of over 100,000 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court.”

Find more on Bow Street Runners here.

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