Rough justice - Victorian style


By Peter Jackson
BBC News

Assassination of prime minister Spencer Perceval
Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was shot dead in 1812

Stealing from a rabbit warren or impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner may not sound like crimes of the century, but in Victorian England they could land you with a hangman's noose around your neck.

Trial records newly released by the National Archives and put online have lifted the lid on a brutal penal system and showcased some of the most infamous criminal cases.

In a world without a police force and a rapidly growing population, early Victorian England was not a place to get caught on the wrong side of the law.

By 1815 - two decades before the Peelers started patrolling the streets - there were more than 200 offences which carried the death penalty.

Hapless highwayman

The infamous system in England and Wales, which relied on its strong deterrent qualities, was dubbed the "Bloody Code" for good reason.

Executions were public spectacles, with the wealthy hiring balconies to get better views, and it did not take much to book yourself a spot at the gallows.

Being in the company of gypsies for a month, damaging Westminster Bridge, cutting down trees, stealing livestock - or anything worth more than five shillings (30 today) for that matter - would do it.

" These registers... highlight the often colourful nature of crime, and in particular how creative criminals could be, even in less sophisticated times "
Olivier Van Calster, Ancestry

The death sentence also applied to pickpockets, the destruction of turnpike roads, general poaching, stealing from a shipwreck and being out at night with a blackened face, which made people assume you were a burglar.

The documents of trials and sentences from 1791-1892 were taken from 279 papers previously held at the National Archives in Kew. They have been put online by family history website Ancestry.

Among the high-profile documents which can now be viewed online are those relating to the attempted assassination of Queen Victoria with a pistol at Windsor Castle in 1882.

Roderick McLean was charged with treason but found not guilty on grounds of insanity, although he spent his remaining days in Broadmoor Asylum.

The 1812 assassination of prime minister Spencer Perceval in the lobby of the House of Commons led to bankrupt businessman John Bellingham's Old Bailey trial and hanging. He remains the only person to murder a British prime minister.

Queen Victoria
Roderick McLean tried to assassinate Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle

Elsewhere, there are details of the man considered to be the inspiration for the Charles Dickens' character Fagin from Oliver Twist - the leader of a gang of young pickpockets.

Isaac "Ikey" Solomon escaped arrest, was recaptured and eventually tried at the Old Bailey in 1830 where he was sentenced to 14 years transportation.

And the trial of one of the main Jack the Ripper suspects, Dr Thomas Neill Cream, is included in the files. He was sentenced to death in 1892 for mass poisoning. His final words were said to be "I am Jack".

Or there is the case of inept highwayman George Lyon, who on one occasion failed to rob a coach in the rain because he allowed the gun powder for his pistol to get wet. He was tried in Lancaster and sentenced to death in 1815.

The documents from 1.4 million criminal trials include 900,000 sentences of imprisonment, 97,000 transportations and 10,300 executions, including a boy aged 14.

Stealing onions

But aside from the big show trials, it is the way ordinary people were dealt with for relatively minor offences that reveals most about the nature of the society.

In 1874, one John Walker was sentenced to seven years "penal servitude" and police supervision. His crime? Stealing onions.

And in 1791, a 63-year-old woman called Sarah Douglas was transported to New South Wales for seven years for stealing table linen.

The crime of "carnally knowing a girl under 13" in 1892, meanwhile, landed John William Aylward with 14 years in prison.

Ancestry's managing director Olivier Van Calster said: "These registers testify to the fact that crime and punishment was and always will be a controversial subject.

"They also highlight the often colourful nature of crime, and in particular how creative criminals could be, even in less sophisticated times."

The papers show that in the 19th century, Wiltshire, Hereford and Essex executed the greatest number of people, while the courts in Yorkshire, Durham and Lancashire were the most sparing.

But although sentences were far harsher, the acquittal rate back then of 25% was fairly close to the current levels of 20%.

The archive can be viewed free by joining an initial 14-day trial, but fees will be charged after that period.