Georgian England is remembered now as a period of great elegance and refinement but it was also notorious for the brutality of its judicial system and as a time when more than 200 crimes on the statute book carried the death penalty, when imprisonment for debt was commonplace, and public floggings and executions were a popular source of entertainment.
The Government was not expected to improve the life of the people and it had no desire to do so. It was however expected to protect the land and property of the lawmakers themselves, the wealthy 3% of the population who were permitted to vote in elections even though they were unlikely to be the victim of crime unless it was the pickpocket on the street, the robber on the highway, or from poaching on the rich man’s estate. The true beneficiaries of the draconian laws were more often middle class shop owners and tavern keepers who along with the poor were always more vulnerable to being the victims of crime, but this was a by-product of and not the intention of those who made the law.
The man most responsible for the shaping of Georgian England was Robert Walpole. He was born near Houghton in Norfolk on 26 August 1676, the son of a prominent Whig politician who upon his father’s death in January 1701, was elected as Member of Parliament for his old constituency of Castle Rising.
British politics in the eighteenth century reflected a society divided between the pro-Church and pro-Monarchy landed aristocracy and the rapidly expanding commercial class that sought the primacy of Parliament in all things (the vast majority had no say at all) and it was a fraught arena where tensions often ran high. The Tories and the Whigs were not political parties as we would understand them today but factions who formed alliances to best serve their own interests, and it was no friendly rivalry. They were in effect two warring camps with both willing to take up the cudgel if required. Their mutual enmity was reflected in the names they called one another – a Tory was an Irish bandit or thief – a Whig a Scottish rebel or Presbyterian fanatic.
The fact that elections were held every three years guaranteed a febrile atmosphere with members of the different factions meeting in their own coffee houses to conspire with one another and plot their opponents, downfall. Also, Political meetings were violent affairs, graft and corruption was commonplace, votes and constituency seats bought and sold and the behaviour on the hustings would often border on riotous assembly.
Yet this would be the world in which Robert Walpole, the great manipulator not to say enabler, would thrive and prosper. Walpole’s connections ensured that he soon gained political office and he proved himself an able administrator and earned a reputation for probity at a time when such a thing was transparently lacking in politics, this despite the fact that he had been briefly imprisoned for embezzlement in 1712. Having gained the favour of King George I, as he would later his son George II, he began to rise through Government ranks but his ambition was a secret to no one and he was hated by the Tories who time and again tried to discredit him and have him impeached. But, Walpole’s reputation was to soar following the fiasco of the South Sea Bubble.
The South Sea Company had been formed in 1711 as a joint-stock company which through the sale of bonds would purchase the national debt but in reality it was a get rich quick scheme underpinned by promises of vast profits to be made from trade. After all, the Company had been granted a monopoly of trade with South America. The fact that Britain was at the time at war with Spain meaning there was little real trade to be had was a fact that was seemingly overlooked by most investors. The rich flocked to buy shares but by 1720 it was apparent that the South Sea Company was an empty shell and the rush to sell shares caused it to crash spectacularly.
Though Walpole had also invested heavily he had earlier been advised to sell his shares. Even so, he tried to re-invest but his purchase of further shares was delayed in the mail and did not arrive in time. This was to prove a stroke of good fortune both financially and more significantly politically for coupled with a few minor criticisms he had made of the Company’s behaviour in the House of Commons it appeared to many that he’d had the foresight to see the crash coming. However, nothing could have been further from the truth but it provided him with a reputation for financial rectitude at a time when others who should have known better had allowed their greed to overwhelm their common sense.
The King now turned to Walpole to help the Government out of the financial mess it now found itself in, and he seized the opportunity with aplomb. Walpole was quick to smooth things over making a series of emollient and reassuring speeches in the House of Commons and confiscating the estates of the Company’s Directors to pay off those worst hit financially in the crisis. He also deflected criticism away from the King who as Governor of the Company was heavily implicated in its wrongdoings. For this both the King and his successor George II would be eternally grateful. Appointed to the position of First Lord of the Treasury alongside a number of other high offices Walpole was the King’s indispensable man and effectively Britain’s first Prime Minister and he would remain so for the next 15 years. It was to be the beginning of the Whig Supremacy and Walpole was to refashion Georgian England in his own image – a country of both conspicuous wealth and extreme poverty, of unapologetic self-interest and punitive laws.
First Walpole, or Cock Robin as he was known, not always with affection, secured his own position. He accumulated for himself a vast array of patronage, ensured that people who would be his men in Parliament were elected to Rotten Boroughs, and aware that he could break as well as make political careers where bribery didn’t serve his purposes he wasn’t adverse to a little intimidation. As a last resort he could always turn to the King for support. Walpole’s policy would be to maintain the status-quo by appealing to the naked self-interest of those who mattered. He adopted a peace policy avoiding ruinously expensive wars, kept taxes low especially those on land, and introduced laws that would protect property, game, and livestock. The rich could sit back and enjoy their wealth comfortable in the knowledge that they were safe from ideological dispute, revolution, robbery, or foreign invasion, and as long as the calm waters of conspicuous self-indulgence and display remained undisturbed then all was well in Georgian England. It would prove for the time being at least a winning formula.
The most potent symbol of Walpole’s England was to be the Debtor’s Prison. Every major city had at least one and there were seven in London alone, the most notorious of which were the Fleet Prison in Farringdon Street and the Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. These prisons were Government owned but privately managed, and were run for profit. For example in 1728, Thomas Bambridge purchased the Letters of Patent to run the Fleet Prison as its Warden for £5,000, and like most Warden’s he immediately divided the prisoners into those who could pay for their keep and those who could not. Indeed, Bambridge was to become particularly notorious for extorting money from his inmates even manacling them on occasions until his demands were met. It was possible to be imprisoned for a debt as little as £2 and incarceration would often come as the result of a request from the creditor.
Whilst in prison the interest on the debt would continue to accrue and release would only come after a financial arrangement had been made for repayment of the debt or the creditor himself relented, and with no specific time to be served a prisoner could be wrangling for his release ad nauseam. For those able to pay imprisonment would be less onerous and depending on how much money they had they might get a cell to themselves with a bed, they would also be able to purchase food, and beer that was often brewed on the premises. They could receive visits from their family, if they were not already imprisoned with the inmate which sometimes happened, and could even conduct business.
The Fleet Prison even permitted prisoners to live within a short distance of the confines of the prison itself, a practice known as the “Liberty of the Rules”. If you were unable to pay for your keep then you would be left to rot in the squalor of the common cells, the damp, windowless, rat-infested rooms situated on the ground floor where the petty criminals were confined. Forced to sleep on a bare floor strewn with straw, fed on gruel twice a day, and with nowhere to urinate or defecate disease was rife and life expectancy short.
The “Bloody Code” as it was to become known, saw offences ranging from poaching, the theft of a loaf of bread, and sheep stealing through to murder and treason carry the death penalty. It was harsh in the extreme, as also were the penalties for those crimes that did not carry the ultimate sanction such as being publicly whipped, branded with hot irons, and confined to the pillory for days on end. In the case of many women and children, and those men who could show themselves to have been of previously good character there was always the option of transportation to the colonies as an indentured slave.
Despite the many laws that now made up the statute book there were few formal structures in place with which to enforce them. There was no police force at this time and instead every parish was obliged to have at least a Constable but these were unpaid volunteers often concerned only with the status their position brought them and little concerned with the actual enforcement of the law. In London and other major cities there were paid Watchmen, these were often elderly ex-soldiers who patrolled the streets at night and at the top of every hour would ring a bell to declare the time and cry – “All is well.” Though they were much-maligned at the time they did play a role in keeping the streets safe at night and provided reassurance if nothing else.
In 1749, the author Henry Fielding who had been appointed Chief Magistrate for London along with his brother John founded the Bow Street Runners. They now largely replaced the “Thief Takers”, the men often recruited from amongst the criminal underworld itself who would investigate crimes and arrest people for a fee. This had always been an unsatisfactory arrangement to say the least for the Thief Takers were most likely involved in the crime itself and were merely turning in their associates for money. The Bow Street Runners did not serve as policemen as we would understand them, they did not patrol the streets at night or make themselves available for emergencies. They did however serve writs and make arrests on the authority of the Chief Magistrate, and they travelled the length and breadth of the country to do so.They were also paid for the first time by central Government.
Justice was administered by Local Magistrates who were invariably drawn from amongst the wealthiest of any parish. They were unpaid and often found their work burdensome and time consuming. Also there was no oversight as to their activities and they were not necessarily disinclined to act maliciously or take a bribe. Indeed, the gothic novelist Horace Walpole, the son of Robert, remarked of the Magistrates in London: “The greatest criminals of this town are the officers of justice.” More serious crimes such as burglary, murder, and treason would be tried before the Quarterly Assizes and in London at Newgate, later to become the Old Bailey.
Unlike the trials for petty crime more serious offences were tried before a jury of the accused person’s peers. Even so, it was commonplace for such cases to be dealt with quickly as it was rare for there to be a defence barrister as none was provided by the State. Also, the presumption on the part of the Magistrates was always one of guilty. Also, the fact that the Courtroom itself would be liberally sprinkled with fresh smelling herbs and flowers to mask the smell of the filthy and unwashed prisoners indicates the attitude of those dispensing justice.
A guilty verdict at the Quarterly Assizes would invariably carry the death penalty and such trials were popular events that would be well attended and raucous affairs. The crowd would heckle and jeer throughout but a silence would descend upon the courtroom as the Judge would place the black cap upon his head and speaking these words pass the sentence of death:
“Prisoner at the bar, it is now my painful duty to pronounce the awful sentence of the law which must follow the verdict that has just been recorded, that you be taken to the place of execution there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your sinful soul.”
Public executions in London were carried out at Tyburn and were occasions for a social gathering in an atmosphere that often resembled that of a fairground. Thousands of people would gather in the field where the gallows were located whilst others lined the streets of the three mile journey of the condemned man from his place of incarceration to his place of execution. Carried on a cart where he would be sat upon his own coffin and accompanied by the Sheriff, a Chaplain and an armed escort the condemned man was for a short period at least the centre of attraction and sometimes as the cart passed a tavern the landlord would offer him a last drink to which the Sheriff would invariably reply: “Not for him, he’s on the wagon.” There would be a celebratory feel to the day with music played, pies sold, and many people drunk. As in the Courtroom however once the condemned man mounted the gallows the crowd would fall silent to hear the Chaplain’s last words:
“You have been adjudged by the laws of this country unworthy any longer to live, unworthy to walk this earth, unworthy to breathe its air, and that no further good to mankind can be expected from you, only the example of your death to warn others in the future, and may God have mercy on your soul.”
The common people knew full well that the justice system was not there to serve them as a popular saying of the time testifies: “The laws grind the poor, and the rich make the law”. As a result the more notorious a criminal, no matter how brutal, the more likely he was to be treated as a folk hero in the tradition of Robin Hood, and Highwaymen such as Dick Turpin, Claude Vall, and Sixteen String Jack who intercepted and robbed the Stage Coaches ridden by the rich were particularly admired and became celebrities. In 1774, when the famous Highwayman John Rann was found not guilty of robbery thousands of people who had gathered outside cheered and carried him aloft from the Court.
The most popular hero of his day however was the 22 year old apprentice carpenter, Jack Sheppard. He had served five years of his apprenticeship and had been showing great promise at his chosen profession when encouraged by the other apprentices he began to frequent the Black Lion Tavern in Drury Lane, a popular haunt of the local criminal underworld and with his newly acquired taste for alcohol and having made the association of a local gang leader, Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, he soon found that there was easier money to be made in crime than there was in having to work for a living and he quickly progressed from petty theft and pick-pocketing to burglary.
Arrested on numerous occasions it was to be his increasingly spectacular prison escapes that made him a popular hero. Arrested once again and sentenced to hang he promised to escape on the day of his execution but the pocket knife he was carrying to cut the ropes that bound him was discovered. Nonetheless, he had another plan and remained supremely confident that he would not hang and boasted of his forthcoming escape calling upon public to come and witness it. The people expected him to be as good as his word.
Jack Sheppard, a wide-eyed young man with a ready smile was only 5’2” and weighed barely 100 pounds and he firmly believed that as the cart was wheeled away to leave him hanging he would not be heavy enough for the noose to break his neck, and so he had arranged for his friends to cut him down and take him to a doctor to be revived. On 24 January 1724, more than 200,000 people turned out to see Jack Sheppard hang – or escape?
On his journey to the gallows Sheppard joined in the celebratory mood revelling in the banter and urging on the crowd. He even persuaded the Sheriff to stop off at the City of Oxford Tavern so he could down a pint of ale.
As he stood beneath the gallows with his neck in the noose he continued to play to a crowd that truly expected him to escape once again. As the cart was pulled away from beneath his feet the raucous crowd descended into a hushed silence as they watched his body squirm and twitch. But there was to be no escape this time and his Sheppard was to dangle from the rope for a full 15 minutes as he endured the agonies of slow strangulation. When the body was at last cut down the crowd surged forward to grab their souvenirs, they pulled out tufts of his hair, cut off his fingers, and gouged out his eyes.
His friends who had planned to rescue him before death’s deadly embrace took hold never even got close to retrieving his lifeless corpse. Such had been the popularity of Jack Sheppard that newspapers were forbidden to write of his exploits and theatres were banned from using his name for the next forty years.
London was the largest city in the world with a population of over 800,000 and was growing all the time. It was a place like no other with more than 50,000 shops, taverns, restaurants, coffee houses, and brothels where every need and desire could be catered for; a place of both outlandish display and grim squalor, with beautiful parks and filthy streets; a place of hucksterism and gaudy self-indulgence. A city of vice, violence and disease its many iniquities were vividly captured in the paintings and lithographs of the artist William Hogarth, and no problem was more evident than that of public drunkenness.
By the 1720’s London was quite literally awash with gin, or “Mother’s Ruin,” as it was known. The craze for gin had caught on in the 1690’s following its cheap importation from the Netherlands and within a decade distilleries producing it were cropping up not just in London but throughout the country. Of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London alone more than half were Gin Palaces. By 1743, it is estimated that the English were drinking up to 10 litres of gin per head of population a year.
Drunkenness had become a common feature on the streets of all England’s major cities and with it a corresponding rise in the crime rate, and the number of abandoned children that thronged the streets and dead babies that littered the gutters had become a national disgrace. Attempts to stamp out the craze for gin were easier said than done, however. The Gin Act of 1736 that priced it at 20 shillings a gallon and required a licence to sell it at a fee of £50 per annum provoked disturbances so violent that they lead to it being repealed in 1742. A further attempt to curtail its production and distribution the following year were to lead to the Gin Riots that were to leave many dead and cause widespread destruction throughout London. Learning the lessons of past mistakes a series of more moderate measures were introduced which over time saw a decline in the consumption of gin and by 1757 it was perceived to be no longer a problem.
By this time Robert Walpole, the man who had done so much to forge Georgian England in his own image was long gone. He had by the early 1740’s ceased to be seen as the guardian of wealth but as an impediment to increased prosperity and people had tired of the widespread corruption that had so come to mark his time in power. His peace policy of placating Britain’s enemies abroad had come to be seen as a national humiliation and his increased taxes on commodities to ensure that the tax on land remained low was damaging the economy. Many amongst an aspiring and growing middle-class, and even many of his natural supporters amongst the nobility and gentry, now saw their futures in overseas trade and the expansion of Empire and so with his enemies, and he had always had many, gathering in Parliament and fearing impeachment on 11 February 1742 he resigned, returning to his palatial home at Houghton Hall a bitter and resentful man. There he died in great splendour three years later on 18 March 1745, aged 68, a bloated caricature of himself and the country he had created. The draconian laws that Walpole had introduced did not go with him, however.
Indeed, the number of capital offences on the statute book increased. It still remained possible to be hanged for impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner, going out at night with a blackened face, damaging a turnpike, and writing a threatening letter. Most of these offences would continue to carry the death penalty late into the Victorian era though as the decades passed they were rarely enforced. Even so, between 1791 and 1891, long after the Bloody Codes had first been introduced more than 10,000 people were hanged in England alone, and imprisonment for debt and Debtor’s Prisons were not abolished until the Bankruptcy Act of 1869. The first professional police force wasn’t established until 1829 when the Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel formed the Metropolitan Police to maintain law and order on the streets of London.
Body Text by Kim Seabrook