Crime and the Courts in England

Whether a prisoner committed for trial was held in jail or allowed to receive bail depended largely on the offence they were charged with. Although statutes concerned with particular offences might establish punishment that was peculiar to them, the broad regulation laid down on the statute of Westminster 1(1725) and confirmed in the first Marian statute was that bail was not to be allowed in grounds of any seriousness, are certainly not a felony, that is except in open Court and by two justices acting together

Prisoners were segregated on arrival at jail and many were put into solitary confinement for long periods of time as a means of forcing repentance for their actions, although this was later abolished as too many prisoners were driven insane. Usually bail was only available for misdemeanours, such as assault, threatening behaviour, forcible entry, extortion, and small-scale riot. Bail may be denied in the case that involved violence or if the offence had been particularly vicious.

If there was a threat that the victim may die from wounds received in an assault the accused will probably be denied bail because the charge would then be replaced by one of murder. Between the years of 1748 and 1753 the number of cases to come before a court on property crime rose from one or two to approximately 138. This was because there was a redistribution of work between crown and county courts. John Howard published reports in 1777 about the state of English penal institutions, which showed the reasons for reform.

There was generally a low level of security and harshness of treatment, and there was also the possibility that conditions in prison actually posed a threat to the health of the inmates. Unlike present-day jails in the eighteenth century prisoners had only the latest influence over the lives of the inmates, and prisoners often organise their own groups to take control over discipline, charitable contributions, and also collect new prisoners entrance money that was used to buy candles soap or coal. Prison officers only took control of matters that they could directly profit from.

They were paid an allowance but not an actual wage until the end of the eighteenth century. He may provide better accommodation for those prisoners who can pay for it, either in a special wing or perhaps even in his own house or apartment. Other money could be earned from visitors and the granting of sexual favours between inmates and visitors. The majority of the extra money was earned through selling liquor MBO and tobacco this was only abolished in 1784 by an act of Parliament. Prisoners were allowed to mix freely in day rooms, the courtyard, and in the taproom.

At night they were usually locked into wards not individual cells depending on the number of inmates at the present time. Visitors were allowed to visit whenever they felt necessary for a fee. Jails were unhealthy places. There were times when they were relatively clean and free from lice but very often visitors found it impossible to stay for long because of the horrible stench. There was no running water, inadequate toilet facilities and cleanliness was not evident. Prisoners slept on planks on the floor without bedding or straw and only those who could pay two shillings and sixpence could have a bed.

The introduction of prison clothing came about in 1774 after the bill was passed to try and eradicate jail fever. This was known as the Pophams Act. The penitentiary act of 1779 proposed the building of institutions to be run on entirely new lines where prisoners would be transformed in their religious and social outlook and emerge as men capable and anxious to support themselves and their families by honest work. There was also to be the provision of running water and fuel and fresh air for prisoners.

New goals that were built at the end of the century had individuals sleeping cells with beds and bedding with ventilated glazed windows, they also had doctors available and were controlled with more discipline and humiliation. Punishment by hanging changed from being a public spectacle to being carried out inside the prison gates at the end of the eighteenth century and the time span between conviction and execution was shortened to increase the terror of prosecution, and deter other criminals. Executed prisoners bodies were often used for medical research; they were sold to surgeons for dissection to advance medicine.

Philips argues that in practice there were not actually as many hangings carried out as previously thought, and the aim was to make an example of only a few, approximately 1 in 10 to raise awareness. Justices of the peace in the eighteenth century came purely from the landed gentry and it was only in the nineteenth century with the rising amounts of cases being brought to prosecution that they were then asked to appoint magistrates for their own local area. It was unheard of for any magistrate to come from anything less than a middle class background.

They were also unpaid for their services and the first salaried magistrates, or stipendiary magistrates as they became known, only came about in 1792. In 1829 Robert Peel the then home secretary introduced new powers of arrest in his Metropolitan Police Act, police constables no longer needed to obtain a warrant before making an arrest. Then in 1856 the County and Borough Act introduced the first obligatory Police Force for every district. Other new laws introduced in these times were: The Vagrancy Act of 1824 and the Master and Servant Act of 1823.

The abolition of the death penalty was argued for by many reformers, but was only abolished for pick pockets in 1808, but kept for other 'Capital Offences' as they were known. Conclusion: The rising crime figures could be attributed to many factors. The increase of Industrialisation and urbanisation meant that there were more people and more opportunity for crime to take place in the industrialised cities. Rural crime was less as many of the offences that were committed were out of sheer desperation and destitution, it would probably be the theft of a pig or a sheep to feed ones family that they would see as inevitable.

Many of the crimes went unpunished in the eighteenth century, as people could not afford the legal costs of prosecution. Urban crime tended to be more prolific and often more violent, but a lot of it was carried out through sheer greed rather than necessity. An exception to this would be the single women who turned to prostitution in times of economic decline. The revision of the laws and the abolition of the Bloody Code meant that more and more laws were being introduced and more activities were being classed as illegal, as a form of social control and to allay fears of a moral panic.

The improvements made in the housing of prisoners acknowledged the fact that even prisoners had rights. The introduction of Police forces for every borough heightened awareness both of crime and the methods of punishment that would be carried out if one were to be prosecuted.


Beattie J. M. "Crime and the Courts in England 1660-1800. "(1986) Oxford University Press. Chapters 5,6 and conclusion. Hay D "War Dearth and Theft in the 18th century. "(1982) Pgs 117-160. Philips. D "Crime Law and Punishment in the industrial revolution. " in O'Brien and Qunalt eds, The Industrial Revolution and British Society.