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.


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