Monday, June 14, 2010
Crime in the Georgian era
I’m constantly astonished by the attitude of the populace at the time. It was growing obvious that some kind of regular, civilian police force was needed, but the main reason for the lack of it until 1832 was the resisitance of the populace. It was a vote loser, so members of Parliament didn’t push for it. The view was that they didn’t want what amounted to an army telling them what to do, and they considered the subsequent crime wave a small price to pay.
Britain wasn't entirely without law enforcement before 1832 and the advent of the “Peelers.” The Thames River Police predates it, for instance, and is the oldest police force in the country. I’m super excited because a writer friend has arranged a tour around the museum soon. I can’t wait to discover more. The Customs and Excise departments (two separate departments in the Georgian era) supervised the incoming and outgoing of goods from the country, but they were woefully understaffed, although they might recruit from the army, especially in peacetime.
Each community had its constable, but they were not like the constables of the present day. Magistrates had more powers than they currently had, and the law had a completely different structure, often misunderstood by researchers.
The Waltham Black Act of 1723 heralded a series of Acts of Parliament that imposed draconian laws on the criminal system. So you could be transported or hanged for stealing a penny loaf. The Act was repealed in 1827, heralding a new era of law enforcement and a new approach to it.
The laws at the time weren’t absolute, as they tend to be now. They were up to interpretation by the court or the magistrate. So if the court decided to value a penny loaf at half a penny, then the criminal received a lesser crime. And if the defendant could read a passage of scripture and it was their first offence, then they could claim “benefit of clergy” and they were released. The Benefit of Clergy rule was introduced to promote literacy, and by the 18th century, when most people could read, it had becojme an anachronism. It was usually the same passage, and so the defendant, if a regular offender, might learn it. However people weren’t as peripatetic as they are now, so they would probably come up before the same magistrate, who would probably remember them.
The most famous magistrates were Henry and John Fielding of Bow Street. Henry Fielding, who was the author of books such as “Tom Jones” (highly recommended!) died in 1754, and after that his brother John took over the role of magistrate of Bow Street. They produced White Papers proposing law reform to Parliament, and it is from these that much of our information on the period is derived. They identified the three main “big” crimes, ie organised crimes and the ones that were most expensive to the country as poaching, smuggling and counterfeiting. Because of the countrywide nature of the crimes, they proposed that a unified force should be established to counter them. To that end, they were allowed to form the “Bow Street Runners,” a group of men who would pursue and prosecute organised crime. There were twelve, or maybe twelve pairs, the wording of the original document is obscure. That’s all. Twelve (or twenty-four) for the whole country.
I’d better stop here. I’m neck deep in bloody murder in my WIP!