Crime and punishment in Georgian Britain
- Article by: Matthew White
18th century illustration of a public executionView images from this item (1)
Highwaymen in particular were held in high esteem by many people. Tales of highway robbery often became the stuff of folklore and legend, and several highwaymen became popular celebrities in their own lifetime. When street robber Jack Sheppard was hanged in 1724 after making four escapes from prison, 200,000 people attended his execution. When the celebrated 18th-century highwayman John Rann was let off for a theft in 1774, he was mobbed by a crowd of adoring admirers as he left court in London. The newspaper articles below paint vivid pictures of Rann in court.
Letter to the Public Advertiser newspaper describing the notorious highwayman John RannView images from this item (1)
Account of proceedings at Bow Street Court from the London Evening PostView images from this item (1)
Law enforcement18th-century law enforcement was very different from modern-day policing. The prosecution of criminals remained largely in the hands of victims themselves, who were left to organise their own criminal investigations. Every parish was obliged to have one or two constables, who were selected every year from local communities, and were unpaid volunteers. These constables were required to perform policing duties only in their spare time, and many simply paid for substitutes to stand in for them.
The Frauds of LondonView images from this item (1)
From the 1750s, however, this patchwork system of local policing was strengthened by a more professional force of officers. In 1751 London magistrate Henry Fielding founded the Bow Street Runners, who for the first time provided a permanent body of armed men to carry out investigations and arrests.
Henry Fielding, founder of the Bow Street Runners, describes London's tangled streets as the perfect hiding place for criminals, 1751View images from this item (2)
The courtsThe vast majority of criminal cases during the 1700s were brought before local magistrates, who dealt with crimes without the benefit of a jury. Magistrates were themselves unpaid officials who were drawn from the ranks of the wealthy, and were expected to defend the English law as amateurs. As a result, many magistrates were easily corrupted. In London, Horace Walpole believed that ‘the greatest criminals of this town are the officers of justice’. Though magistrates were extremely powerful men, many found their duties extremely burdensome and often dealt with their heavy caseloads with great reluctance.
Illustration of a trial at the Court of King's BenchView images from this item (1)
The Bench by William HogarthView images from this item (1)
Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum
PunishmentsThe 18th-century criminal justice system relied heavily on the existence of the ‘bloody code’. This was a list of the many crimes that were punishable by death - by 1800 this included well over 200 separate capital offences. Guilty verdicts in cases of murder, rape and treason - even lesser offences such as poaching, burglary and criminal damage - could all possibly end in a trip to the gallows. Though many people charged with capital crimes were either let off or received a lesser sentence, the hangman’s noose nevertheless loomed large.
Broadside: The Life, Trial, Execution and Dying Behaviour of Joseph HuntonView images from this item (1)
Broadside: The Dreadful Life and Confession of a Boy Aged Twelve YearsView images from this item (1)
Extract from the diary of Francis Place describing the pillory, 1829View images from this item (2)
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