28 January 2011

Crimes our ancestors might have been transported for.

Image reference:http://www.flickr.com/photos/bbcradio4/4795944365/sizes/s/in/photostream/

If you are interested in the state of criminal offences and punishments in the late 18th century, the book by Patrick Colquhoun entitled,  A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis, written in 1796, makes an interesting read. The book explains various crimes and misdemeanours, and suggests remedies for them that are contemporary to the convict era.

A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis was written in response to the ever-growing fears held among London society towards the influx of population that had occurred because of growth in the commercial and manufacturing industries; consequently resulting in heavy increases in crime and criminality. The necessities of having an effective police force to administer justice are outlined in the early chapters with crimes such as counterfeiting and 'coining'  given a most severe judgement. 

Transportation is cited to have officially commenced in 1718, under an act of King George I, although 'exile' as a punishment had been in existence since Elizabeth I.  It was initially given to those who had been sentenced to death, but had pleaded 'Benefit of Clergy' to obtain a lesser sentence; which they could do if they were a peer, or a woman, and literate.[1] Up until 1776 all British transportation was to the Americas, where convicts were sold as indentured slaves for life, or a period of seven or fourteen years. Transportation ceased briefly after the American war of Independence, but was recommenced with the First Fleet to New South Wales in 1788.

In 1796 there were 160 capital crimes that could be commuted to transportation, and many lesser crimes received this sentence as well.[2] A Full list of these crimes is available in the book, and includes capital crimes such as: 'Cutting hop binds',  'Sending threatening letters', 'Breaking down the head of a fish-pond' and 'Cutting down trees in an avenue or garden'. Crimes against property make up a large proportion of capital offences.
A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis can be used as a great reference if you are looking to understand the nature of 18th century crime, and why your ancestor received the sentence they did.

[1]  Patrick Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis, p. 435.
[2]  Patrick Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis, pp. 438-444.

Also, this link is to the Old Bailey site, which has documents of trial proceedings as well as some good articles about crime and punishment in the 18th and 19th centuries: