Punishments for crime in the late eighteenth century

Last week’s post from the police court revealed some of the punishments for petty theft in 1860. Despite the goods stolen appearing trifles, the fact that property had been taken seemed at that time to merit a custodial sentence. A woman who stole from her employer was given six months, even though she had a young family to look after, another who stole a single wine glass was sent to prison for seven days. These sentences, however harsh they appear today, were far more lenient than those in the late eighteenth century. Recently I was looking for some information on the Priestley riots of 1791; I came across a report in Aris’s Gazette of the trial of rioters at Warwick assizes. The report contained details of other cases tried that day, mostly cases of theft. As in the nineteenth century, it seems that property crime attracted more severe sentencing than manslaughter. I found the report personally quite alarming – my research generally centres on the 1830s and this report from only forty years previous revealed a system of judicial punishment that appears as different from the mid-nineteenth century as the 1860s sentences were from what we would expect in a court today.


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The following is taken from Aris’s Gazette, August 29th 1791

At the above Assizes also.- Edward Brown (aged 18) for assaulting, cruelly beating and robbing (with other persons) John Vale, in the parish of Aston; and William Millington, for stealing a mare, the property of Mr. Payne of Atherstone, were capitally convicted, received sentence of death, and are left for execution. 

John Abel (aged 17) for robbing the house of Mr. Power of this town, of wearing apparel; William Taylor, detected in the fact of stealing two hats from Mr. Adams in Bull Street; William Cash and Javen Bagley, for stealing meat from the slaughter house of Mr. Taylor; George Yardley, for stealing a quantity of brass from the shops of Mr. Blackford; and Benjamin Palmer and John Sherman (both aged 19) for breaking into and robbing a house at Tamworth were sentenced to be transported for seven years.

William Aylesbury, for stealing six teaspoons; Robert Owen for stealing a pair of silver tea tongs and Mary Smith, for stealing a gown skirt, were burnt in the hand.

John Field, for manslaughter, was fined sixpence.

Fourteen (including those indicted as rioters) were acquitted; and against five, no bills were found.

Copies of Aris’s are available to view on microfilm, free of charge, at the Library of Birmingham, Local Studies Centre – the library is closed on Sunday due to recent cut backs. Please support our libraries and archives.


‘All the colours of the rainbow’: a local insight to the 1832 reformed Parliament


In just a few short weeks the theatrics of election campaigning will be replaced, once more, with the theatrics of Parliamentary discourse. We have become familiar with the sometimes questionable behaviour of the House through televised debates. In the nineteenth century, Birmingham’s first returned MPs had something of a shock when they took their seats. At a Town Hall dinner in 1833, the two men, Thomas Attwood and Joshua Scholefield, gave some account of their first year’s experience. These were Birmingham men and Attwood in particular seemed to have, initially at least, felt some sense of awe at having found himself in the presence of the King. Although he couched his description in the language of reform, he was not shy at emphasising the ‘greatness’ of the company he had witnessed – dignitaries of the Church, others great officers who could fight in battles, a vast number skilled in law and many ladies of rank. However, Attwood questioned their ability to understand the difficulties of the ordinary people, adding that they looked down, as if from the altitude of a balloon, and consequently could scarcely see such a man as John Bull and his poor family travelling through all the hardships of trade and commerce. Attwood’s awe was tempered by his values.

Joshua Scholefield’s speech made no bones about his initial perception of the House, he could but not express his disappointment at the sort of company he had met with in the House of Commons. Scholefield said that he had hoped that the reformed Parliament would have comprised a set of men who wished to serve their country but declared that he had soon found them to be made up of the old leaven. Both men had been struck by the dress of the Members – there appears to have been no stuffy grey suits in the 1832 Parliament – they dressed in red and blue, with cocked hats and swords and exhibiting on the whole more the appearance of theatricals than senators collected to decide upon the destinies of a great nation.  I often think the same about our recent Parliaments when they heckle like a lot of school children! Attwood’s revelation that the MPs appeared in all the colours of the rainbow met with much laughter. Scholefield stated that the Members appeared ludicrous, but their conduct was mischievous.

This apparent mischief was of far greater concern to the local Members, particularly the manner in which some of the MPs voted on important issues. Scholefield said that their servility to the ministry was shocking revealing that it was no unusual thing to see them coming into the House at twelve o’clock at night (dressed up as he described) for the sole purpose of voting for the ministers citing one occasion when twenty three of these members came in from a levee, dressed in all the colours of the rainbow, just in time to vote in the majority. Scholefield claimed that he was often left ashamed at their conduct, saying that the man who talked of the wants of the country was looked upon as mad; and when distress was said to exist it was flatly denied or inattentively considered. Attwood himself, with his Birmingham accent and tendency to drag his speeches out over the course of hours, would come in for such contempt later in the decade as he called for an extension of voting rights to all working men.

It may be of some regret (or prudence!) that there are no longer any cocked hats and swords in the House. But there are some things that clearly have not changed.

The quotes in this post are taken from the Birmingham Journal, December 14th, 1833. Birmingham’s local newspaper archive is available to view free of charge in the Local Studies Centre, fourth floor, Library of Birmingham – note that because of recent government cuts the library is no longer open on a Sunday.  Please support our libraries and archives. 

Petty theft – women sentenced in the police courts

Many of the cases that appeared in front of the magistrates at the Victorian Police Courts related to theft of relatively low value items. Nevertheless, the value of the goods seem to have mattered less than the act of stealing itself. The following accounts are from a single court session on April 22nd, 1860. Included here are prosecutions for theft of a shawl, a single wine glass and, particularly poignant, some plate steel which landed Jemima Ashton with six months in prison, despite having a baby in her arms at the court appearance.

Taken from the Birmingham Daily Post available to view by subscription to the British Newspaper Archives, or free of charge at the Library of Birmingham Local Studies centre.

Police court 1860

Stealing a piece of meat.- An old woman, sixty-nine years of age, named Ann Bowler, was brought up on a charge of stealing a piece of veal from a stall in the Market Hall. She pleaded guilty, but as the prosecutor did not wish to press the case, she was discharged.

Stealing a shawl.- Two young women named Sarah Sponley, Minories, servant, and Mary Ann Costello, Carey’s Court, burnisher, were charged with stealing a shawl, value £1, 1s, 9d, the property of Mr. Bright, draper, Bull Ring. About four o’clock on the previous afternoon, the prisoners went into the prosecutor’s shop and asked to put a shawl by, offering to pay 5s on it. The shopman, who was serving them, saw something under Sponley’s cloak which he believed to be a shawl. He immediately called to the shop walker, “P.Q.”, signifying “Look out”, and caught hold of the bulk under the woman’s cloak, which in the scuffle fell to the ground, and proved to be a shawl belonging to the prosecutor.  Police-Sergeant Frankish was called in and the prisoners were given into custody. Sponley denied her guilt, and was committed to the Sessions; but the other was discharged, the evidence not being sufficient to implicate her.

Robbing an employer.- A married woman, with an infant in her arms, named Jemima Ashton, residing in Barford Street, was charged with stealing several articles of plated ware, the property of her late master, Mr. W. Barker, plated ware manufacturer, Paradise Street. The prosecutor stated that the prisoner had been in his service since October last as a burnisher. Since that period, from time to time, salt cellars and other plated articles have been missed. On the previous day, Mr. Isaac Aaron, pawnbroker, Edgbaston Street, went to the prosecutors warehouse and picking the prisoner out from a number of women stated she had at different times pledged the articles with him. These were, on being produced, identified by Mr. Barker. On being charged with stealing things, she at first denied, but afterward admitted to the robbery, but begged to be forgiven on account of her family. Mr. Welch, after remarking on the serious nature of the case, sentenced the prisoner to six months imprisonment. 

Robbery from a liquor vault.- An old woman named Harriet Jones was charged with stealing a wine glass from the shop of Mr. George F. Greensill, liquor merchant, Digbeth. A witness named Thomas Bingham deposed that he went to Mr. Greensill’s shop on the previous afternoon to have a glass of hot gin. He saw the prisoner with a glass in her hand, and she took it out of the shop with her. Witness informed the prosecutor of the robbery, and he followed and overtook the woman. She instantly produced the glass from underneath her shawl and said “here it is”. She was then given into the custody of Police-constable 189. The prosecutor stated that he must press for a punishment in this case, as robberies of a similar nature are of most frequent occurrence. The prisoner pleaded guilty and was sentenced to seven days imprisonment. 

A Regular Irish Row

On April 20th, 1858 a ‘scrimmage’ took place in Steelhouse Lane that reportedly lasted several hours. The police had been detained by a violent outbreak at the Workhouse at the same time, which is why the Steelhouse Lane brawl was allowed to carry on so long. The following is a report from the Police Court, reported in the Daily Post of April 22nd 1858.  The presiding justices were Mr Kynnersley and Henry van Wart. As an aside, Henry van Wart had been one of the town’s first town councillors, an American by birth and was married to the sister of Washington Irving, author of Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow.

Birmingham Police Court

A Regular Irish Row:- On Tuesday afternoon the locality of Steelhouse Lane was for four or five hours a continued scene of turmoil and excitement, consequent upon a scrimmage which took place between the Irish and English residing in Steelhouse Lane, resulting from a summons which had been obtained against a Mrs. MacCarty. A considerable number of heads and one arm were broken, and innumerable bruises inflicted; and it was not until the arrival of a body of police that the “row” was quelled and peace restored. So many of the force were required to prevent a breach of the peace at the Workhouse on the same day that some time elapsed before a force could be collected to proceed to Steelhouse Lane. Two Irish men, named Michael Cotter, London Prentice Street and William Connor, Steelhouse Lane, both shoemakers, were given into custody by Mr. John Brueton, landlord of the Bell public house, as being most active in the affair. The latter deposed that about five in the afternoon of the named there was a great disturbance in the street, near his house. He was standing at the door when the two prisoners came up, and Cotter threw something at witness, which narrowly missed his face, and also used the most opprobrious language towards him. They also challenged him out to fight, and threatened him in beastly language. Witness knew Connor very well, as he lived next door to him. – Sarah Blackham, servant at the Bell, gave similar testimony and then described how Connor rushed at her, caught hold of her by the hair and pulled her down the steps into the street. She would have been much hurt if assistance had not speedily been at hand. Robert Hallam, who lived in Steelhouse Lane, saw Connor “fly” at the preceding witness and ill-treat her as she described. He went to her assistance and saved her from further injury. This witness also deposed to the violent nature of the “row”. – William Oxford stated that the disturbance arose from the circumstance of a summons having been taken out against a Mrs MacCarty, who was a sister of the prisoner Connor, who lodged in her house. – Detective Palmer took the prisoners into custody. – In defence Cotter said Conner was drunk, and he was merely taking him home. They denied being implicated in the disturbance. – Mr. Kynnersley said there could be no doubt the prisoners had committed a very serious offence. They were a disgrace to the neighbourhood and the borough, and must each pay a fine of £5, or go to gaol for two months. The money not being forthcoming, the prisoners were committed.