The Crimes of our Ancestors

The criminal records of our ancestors can offer a fascinating insight into changing attitudes to crime and punishment often a result of social and economic influences. The Victorian era saw the end of transportation with prisons beganning to be used as a punishment and not just a place where criminals awaited trial, execution, or transportation.

Crime, criminal behaviour, sentencing and many other aspects of the criminal justice system has changed signifantly in the last 500 years and is still evolving today with the latest Police, Crime, Sententing and Courts Act 2022 commencing on 28th June 2022 bringing into effect Harper’s Law following the long petition by the wife of PC Andrew Harper who was killed in the line of duty in 2019.

What types of crimes?

Many of the crimes of the past continue today and will be familiar, some no longer exist in that they have either been re-named or simply merged into wider categories. So what names of crimes might you find in the criminal records or the past?

  • Murder and attempted murder
  • Felo de se: Suicide – suicide was a crime until the 1961 Suicide Act, it is still a crime to assist someone to commit suicide
  • Manslaugher
  • Infanticide
  • Petty Treason – the crime committed by a servant in killing his master, by a wife in killing her husband, or by an ecclesiastic in killing his superior- this ceased to be a separate offence from murder under the Offences Against the Person Act 1828
  • Cannibalism – no longer a specific crime in England althought it was effectively outlawed by the Human Tissue Act 2004
  • Assualt
  • Bodily Harm (Gross and Actual)
  • Public Disorder
  • Rioting
  • Mutiny
  • Radicalism and Policital movements
  • Robbery
  • Highway Robbery – no longer a specific crime in England, now comes under robbery or armed robbery (the last mounter highway robbery is thought to have taken place in 1831)
  • Grand Larcery and larceny – no longer a specific crimes in England, now more generalised crimes of burglary, robbery, fraud, theft and related offences
  • Theft
  • Smugling
  • Poaching
  • Stealing animals
  • Arson
  • Uttering, Counterfeiting, forgery
  • Rape
  • Sexual assualt
  • Sodomy
  • Obscenity and pornography (publication of images)
  • Bigamy
  • Prostitution
  • Abduction
  • Treason – Until the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 this was the only crime for which a person could still be sentanced to death following the end of capital punishment in 1965. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 ‘reduce’ the sentance to life imprisonment
  • Sedition – abolished in England under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009
  • Espionage and other political crimes
  • Bankrupcy – no longer a criminal offence in itself unless it relates to criminal offences such as fraud
  • Vagrancy

Has sentancing changed? In the era of transportation it was not unknown for such crimes to be punished by transportation, such as these two entries found in the Surrey Calendar of Prisoners, for the Surrey Assizes held at Guildford:

William Jones (Aged 35, who could not read or write) was charged with and found guilty of stealing a chestnut mare on 8th June 1848 and was sentenced to 7 years transportation

Surrey sessions and assizes 1848–1880. Calendar of prisoners. Series QS3/4/. Surrey, England, Calendar of Prisoners, 1848-1902

To put the above sentence in context, horse stealing was a significant crime prior to the introduction of the motor car and prior to 1832 horse theft attracted a death sentence. Following the Larceny Act 1916 the sentence was imprisonment for up to 14 years. Horse theft is no longer a specific crime but would be dealt with as theft for which the maximum sentence of 7 years (Crown Court) or 6 months (Magistrates Court) with or without an unlimited fine.

Richard Amor (aged 20 who could not read or write) was charged with and found guilty of stealing a silver watch from a person on 26th May 1849 and was sentanced to transportation for life

Surrey sessions and assizes 1848–1880. Calendar of prisoners. Series QS3/4/. Surrey, England, Calendar of Prisoners, 1848-1902

Such a crime today would be classed as a Robbery for which the sentancing guidelines state that custodial sentances begin at 4 or 5 years with the most serious of offences such as armed robbery attracting a maximum of life.

Earlier examples can be taken from Peter Wilson Coldham’s book, “Bonded Passnegers to America” available on the Ancestry website:

Robert Allerton convicted at the Lent Assizes in 1770 in Yorkshire for stealing a sheep at Hampnell was sentenced to 14 years transportation on reprieval Bonded Passengers to America (9 vols. In 3)

Daniel Hicks convicted at the July Assizes in 1720 in Hampshire for horse stealing was sentenced to 14 years transportation on reprieval

It must be remembered that whilst prisons, also known historically as “Bridewells” or “Houses of Correction” have existed for many centuries, they were largely used to hold prisoners awaiting execution or transportation, debtors (known as debtors prisons) or those being held on remand. Convicted criminals were unlikey to be sentenced to a term in prison. It was only in the 19th century when Transportation ended that the prison population began to grow.

The increased use of prisons to house criminals brought with it the introduction of penal service or sentencing of a term in prison with hard labour when the Penal Serviture Acts 1853 and 1857 were introduced to replace transportation.

Several new prisons were built in the 19th Century to house the rising number of criminals, “Offences went up from about 5,000 per year in 1800 to about 20,000 per year in 1840”. “Between 1842 and 1877, 90 prisons were built or added to. It was a massive building programme, costing millions of pounds” this included a new prison for Surrey at Wandsworth, which like many built in this period is still in use today.

Wandsworth Prison, Surrey, when it first opened in 1851

Prisons were not the easy option. Facing rising crime, the Victorians believed in punishment and prison sentences were often accompanied by hard labour, even for what would be a petty crime for which an offender today may simply receive a fine and/or community service.

Petty crime was often unplanned and opportunistic stealing small amounts of food, clothing, money, jewels etc, usually tried at Petty Sessions (PS) or Quarter Sessions (QS), occasionally finding their way to the Assize courts, particularly if they were a repeat offender.

See my next blog in which I trace the life of a petty criminal in the late Victorian years who was sentenced several times to prison with of hard labour which I will also discussed further.

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