Criminal Justice 1788-1851

Convict Connections - Chapter 3


Across our period (1788-1851) approaches to crime, and the systems for catching, prosecuting and punishing criminals in Britain, underwent changes. These changes were rooted in wider societal transformation as Britain moved from a primarily rural society to become the world's first urbanized, industrialised nation.

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Image: In the 19th century, law became more professionalized, with an expanding number of specialised lawyers. 'The Tichborne Trial' by Frederick Sargent'. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia. Original held by Hampshire County Council Museums Service.

The professionalisation of criminal justice

In the face-to-face rural communities and small towns of the mid-18th century, informal sanctions were often effective, and the criminal justice system was a last resort. There were no professional police and justices of the peace were amateurs - justice was administered quickly and with little protection for the criminal.

By the mid-19th century, the legal system had become much more formalized. Anxiety about the dangers of crime (the propertied classes were particularly anxious) grew as the rural poor moved to the growing cities, where they were no longer under the social control of squire, parson and village community. This concern led eventually to the implementation of a professional police force, and a more formalized; at the same time, a specialised legal system developed, staffed by trained, professional lawyers.

Prosecuting criminals in the 18th century

In the 18th century, most criminals were prosecuted privately by the victims - there was often little motive for victims of crime to press charges, since they might end up bearing the costs of legal proceedings. During the eighteenth century, local associations for the prosecution of felons were established, into which subscribers paid money to encourage the prosecution of felons by offering rewards. However, the incentive of rewards could lead to corruption and false accusations.

Image: Criminal gangs of London were famously represented by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist (1837-9). 'Dodger introduces Oliver to Fagin' by George Cruikshank. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons..

Image: A young prisoner handcuffed to a Beverley policeman c. 1860. Image from East Riding Archives collection.

Policing in the 18th and 19th centuries

In the late 18th century there was no equivalent of our modern police force. In 18th century London the Bow Street Runners were a small localised precursor of later professionalised police forces, but everywhere else the sole enforcers of the peace were elected parish constables, who received no payment apart from minor rewards.

In 1829, Sir Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police Act introduced a new system of paid police to London, and this system was adopted more widely after the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. The police increasingly took over from private prosecutors the role (and cost) of catching and convicting criminals.

A local example - policing in Beverley

Eighteenth century Beverley was policed by 18 annually elected constables who were controlled by the local 'sergeants at mace' and justices of the peace. Local concern about crime in the later 18th century led to the raising of subscriptions towards the cost of apprehending and bringing criminals to justice. The Beverley Borough Police Force was established in 1836.

The East Riding Constabulary was formed twenty years later, in 1856.

Trials and sentencing in the 18th century - Quarter Sessions and Assizes

Local courts for trying criminals were held four times a year and were known as 'quarter sessions'. The quarter sessions for the East Riding were held in Beverley; Hull had its own sessions. Verdicts were reached by a jury, and sentences were passed down by the presiding chairman and justices of the peace, elected amateurs drawn from the local landed gentry or the aldermen of a town or city. Quarter sessions could try crimes such as larceny (thefts of low-value goods) and some felonies, including thefts of more valuable items as well as assaults and rape. Common offences tried at the East Riding and Hull quarter sessions included theft, assault and poaching. Capital offences such as murder were tried by professional judges at assizes courts - the assizes courts for our area were held in York. Records from quarter sessions and assizes can provide information about the crimes committed by transportees.

Sentences of transportation increased in the 18th century (between 1718 and the outbreak of the American War of Independence, over 50,000 men women and children from Britain and Ireland were transported to the British colonies of the Caribbean and North America). Juries and judges were usually men of property who were afraid of the apparent rise in crimes against property, but by the end of the 18th century, they were also becoming more reluctant to pass down the death sentence. Since most gaols were temporary lockups rather than the penitentiaries we have today, transportation was one of the few alternatives that the legal system offered to either hanging or freeing a criminal; judges therefore increasingly resorted to sentences of transportation.

Most convicts were sentenced to be transported for either seven years or fourteen. Sentences of 10 years, or life, were occasionally passed down.

Image: Records from the East Riding quarter sessions are held by the East Riding Archives and Local Studies Service.

Image: East Riding Quarter Sessions were held in the Beverley Guildhall courtroom until c.1810.

Image: From 1811 onwards the East Riding Quarter Sessions were held in the Sessions House in New Walk, Beverley

Image: Cartoon of a Justice of the Peace or 'Rotation Officer'

Justices of the Peace

Justices of the peace were part-time, unpaid officials entrusted with local law enforcement. They were usually drawn from the ranks of landowners and other leading local figures (including, for example, prosperous merchants). Most counties had no more than twenty JPs.

JPs had a number of roles in their communities. As well as acting as judges in petty sessions and quarter sessions, JPs supervised local officials and the operation of the Poor Law, fixed wages, were responsible for licensing ale houses and supervising weights and measures.

JPs had a day-to-day responsibility for the operation of the law - if a victim wished to press charges against a suspect, they visited their local JP in the first instance. The JP had the power to decide whether the charge had substance and should be brought before a court.

Image: Justices of the Peace were often local landowners such as the Constables of Burton Constable Hall. Image from "The Ancestral Homes of Britain by Francis Orpen Morris (1868). Original held by the British Library. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Justices of the Peace in the East Riding

During the period of penal transportation, JPs in the East Riding of Yorkshire included some long-standing landowners whose homes can still be visited. One such family is the Constables. This family lived in Burton Constable Hall, which is open to the public today.

From the 16th until the 20th centuries. Across the years of penal transport, members of the Constable family acted as justices of the peace at the local quarter sessions and were responsible for sentencing criminals from the East Riding to be transported. The family archives are available for consultation in the East Riding Archives and Local Studies at the Treasure House.

Justices of the Peace in Hull

The justices of the peace in Hull were the mayor and aldermen, who were mostly drawn from the wealthy merchant families who dominated town politics and public affairs in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Daniel Sykes, MP

Daniel Sykes was a justice of the peace at the Kingston-Upon-Hull quarter sessions, and was the recorder for the sessions when Charles Drewery was sentenced to transportation in 1821. Sykes came from a family of wealthy Hull merchants, and his father and brother were mayors of the town. His father made a fortune importing 'white iron' from Sweden that was used by Sheffield cutlers.

Sykes worked as a lawyer in Hull, and in 1820 became a Whig MP for the city. He was friendly with William Wilberforce, the Hull anti-slavery campaigner, and his voting record shows that he was concerned with human rights issues. For example, in 1824 Sykes voted to abolish flogging in the navy. Sykes was the main speaker at a meeting in Hull to mark William Wilberforce's retirement from parliament. On his death in 1832, Hull Mechanic's Institute raised a seven-foot statue of Daniel Sykes in Hull. This statue is now in the collections of Hull City Museums, reference number KINCM: 2005.216.

Sykes was involved in the movement to educate working-class children; he called a meeting which led to infant schools being opened in 1826 and 1828 (High Street) - both schools later became Church schools.

A detailed parliamentary biography of Sykes exists; Martin Casey, 'Sykes, Daniel (1766-1832), of Raywell and 16 Bowlalley Lane, Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorks', published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2009).

Image: The statue of Daniel Sykes commissioned by the Hull Mechanics Institute is now in the collection of Hull City Museums. Image courtesy of Hull City Museums. This image may not be reproduced and remains the copyright of Hull City Museums.

Image: Daniel Sykes built himself a rural mansion, Raywell House, in 1803. Photo by Dr Patty McAlpin (licensed via Wikimedia Commons).

Image: Daniel Sykes, MP, by J. Jackson. From the collection of the British Museum. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Image: Henry Etherington built Ferriby House as his home. Photo by Peter Church. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Sir Henry Etherington

Sir Henry Etherington (1732-1819) was one of the justices in the quarter sessions which convicted William Dring in October 1784. He was the son and namesake of a wealthy Hull merchant, and was twice mayor of the town, in 1769 and in 1785. Sir Henry was one of those wealthy Hull merchants who at this time began to move away from the city seeking the lifestyle of the country gentleman. Like Sir Henry, most moved to the pleasant countryside a few miles to the west of the city, and many large houses from this period can still be seen in the villages here. Henry had Ferriby House built as his home between 1785 and 1788, and the building still stands as North Ferriby Nursing Home.

New ideas about punishment in the 19th century

However, across our period, new ideas about punishment developed. There was a search for less cruel forms of punishment and a belief that institutions could cure people of their criminality. Crime became seen as a social problem, and industrialised Britain had both the means and the will to spend money on addressing it. From the later 18th century there were moves to introduce prison as an alternative to both the death sentence and transportation.

Although 'houses of correction' already existed, these were used mainly for petty criminals and beggars. In 1791, a General Prisons Act recommended the building of penitentiaries, and this institution developed, slowly at first, into the prison system we know today. In the East Riding, new and larger houses of correction were built in Beverley in 1810 and in Hull in 1829. The new enthusiasm for prisons was embodied in 'model prisons' such as the Millbank Penitentiary, in which one of our convicts, Maria Fay, was held prior to her transportation.

Image: The East Riding House of Correction in Beverley, c.1860-1870. East Riding Archives and Local Studies Service DDX734/4.

Image: Australian settlements had become self-confident colonial cities and no longer wanted to be a dumping ground for British convicts. St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne under construction in 1866. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The end of penal transportation

In 1853, the increasingly confident colonials of Sydney and Melbourne refused to take any more convicts; the Penal Servitude Act was introduced, leading to the replacement of transportation with longer prison sentences. No transportation took place after 1868.

Court records

Records from quarter sessions and assize courts can provide information about individuals who were transported. The records for the East Riding quarter sessions are held in the East Riding Archives and Local Studies in the Treasure House; records for the Kingston-Upon-Hull quarter sessions are held in the Hull History Centre; records for the York assizes are held in the National Archives.

Image: The East Riding quarter sessions were held in Beverley, and the records for these court cases are held by the East Riding of Yorkshire County Archives Service.