Crime and punishment

Chris Bates summarised Feb 2016 some aspects he discovered when viewing old British Newspapers online

victorian policeman

The village constable or the courts

19th century ‘local’ newspaper reports on ‘the Law’ for Harston tell us that, like other villages, it always had a ‘village constable’, with notebook and pencil, handing out warnings and recording local incidents, to be relayed where necessary to the courts. Serious crimes, those mainly reported in the newspapers, were dealt with at Cambridge Quarter Sessions (courts); less serious ones at a local Assizes at Melbourn. Most detentions and prison sentences were served at the gaol in Cambridge Castle on Castle Hill. Some villages had ‘lock-ups’ – was there one ever in Harston?

Serious offences were tried by jury, as now, but each district also had one or more ‘Associations for the Apprehension of Felons’, and lists of members appeared regularly in the papers. For Harston, they included the principal local landowner/farmers (the Whitechurchs, Hurrells, Taylors, Longs, Rowleys, etc). These village worthies demanded, and were willing to pay, for an effective crime-deterrent!

Crimes and punishments

Some sentences, even for relatively minor offences such as petty larceny – eg theft of food – seem to us now extremely harsh; transportation (presumably to ‘the colonies’, usually Australia) for 7 or 15 years or for life, and even death sentences! Examples from the 1st half of the 19thc were: John Butler, William Winters, Michael Weston, John Jude, Henry Smith & James Northrope, in 1823 stole 11 ducks from Mr Kidman Watson, 7 years ‘transportation’; William Andrews in 1832 broke into James Tuck’s house & stole sovereigns etc and a gun, sentenced to death; William Jude & Henry Sharpe in 1834 stole a woodcutter’s ‘bill’ (?hook), transportation for life; James Burroughs, in 1849 (with 2 others) stole pigs from James Watson and others, 15 years transportation. The harshest sentences were for repeat offenders, these nearly always being labourers, not the ‘well-heeled’.

From the burglaries and thefts reported in Harston alone, petty crime was at least as prevalent as now, and there were reports of ‘highway robbery’, adding to the hazards of journeys by road.

Driving misdemeanours

Before motorised transport, common misdemeanours included ‘driving a horse-and-cart (or riding a horse) without reins’, ‘driving a horse-and-cart while drunk’, or leaving a horse-and-cart on the road, eg while attending a cricket match or visiting the pub. One spat (in the court in Cambridge) arose over the disputed exemption of a dung-cart, asked to pay 2d (ca. 1p) toll charge at the Turnpike Toll gate between Harston and Hauxton. The judge drew a lengthy altercation to a close, saying that he himself would pay the fee – clearly he badly wanted his tea!

When bicycles appeared in the late 19th century, it was ‘riding without lights’, or ‘riding on the footpath’ that kept Mr Plod busy, but he had a field day with the (new) motor car. Speeds of 15 mph excited his wrath, and he lurked, pocket watch in hand, timing a potentially-offending vehicle between distance-markers on the turnpike. Woe-betide the miscreant who dared nudge 30 mph!

This page was added on 30/08/2016.

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