Monday, 24 June 2013

'The Real Moll Flanders: 18th Century Criminal Trials and Punishment’: Part 2, the case of Hester Norton.

Before the advent of a national police force victims of crime were expected to take the lead in the detection, arrest and committal of suspected criminals. In those circumstances, local knowledge and the support of the community were essential in bringing a suspect before a magistrate. Until that point, magistrates generally took a passive role in the investigation or detection of infractions of the criminal law, issuing warrants to local constables or bailiffs to search and arrest suspects at the request of a victim of crime.

Once a suspect was detained the role of a magistrate was to examine the victim, accused and any witnesses. Examinations were taken in the presence of a legal clerk, whose role was to ‘create’ written statements based on the questions put by the magistrate and answers elicited from each witness. They were then signed by the witness and the examining magistrate. Sworn statements were used to form the basis of an indictment which was put to a grand jury to determine the validity of an accusation and might be produced to the grand jury to enable them to reach that decision.

The case against Hester Norton began when she tried to sell a silver tumbler to William Thompson. Although Thompson lived seven miles away from Hester’s former home he was aware of her bad character and, suspecting that she had stolen the tumbler, he reported his suspicions to a magistrate.

City of York -The information of William Thompson of the City of York, taylor, taken on oath the 9th day of May 1735.
Saith that on Wednesday last after Norton, spinster, came to this informants’ house and brought along with her a silver tumbler marked TE which she left at this informants’ house along with her clothes and told this informant she received the said tumbler from one Elizabeth Varey of Marston in satisfaction of a guinea the said Varey owed her. And this informant having heard a bad character of the said Hester Norton went over to Marston to enquire into the truth of the facts of the said Elizabeth Varey who told this informant that she knows nothing of this tumbler and that the said Norton never had it from her from whence and other concerning circumstances this informant verily believes the said tumbler hath been stolen by the said Hester Norton from some person or persons unknown or present to this informant.
Sworn before James Dodsworth    Signed: William Thompson
The relevance of Thompson’s statement is that it emphasises the seriousness of the offence by value, bringing it into the category of felony by stating the value of goods in excess of the one shilling threshold. It further alleges evidence of her bad character, possibly to persuade the magistrate to prosecute the offence. Finally, William Thompson signs his own name, providing evidence of his education and social status.
As a result of enquiries made following Thompson’s allegations George Gray of Stillingfleet, Hester’s former employer, was identified as the owner of the stolen goods. He identified the silver tumbler as his and listed a range of other valuable items missing from his home.

City of York - The information of George Gray of Stillingfleet in the County of York, yeoman, taken upon oath the 10th day of May 1735.
This informant saith and deposeth that on Saturday night last he was in his own right possessed of a silver tumbler, four half crowns which were in the cup, a pair of silver studs and two pair of little silver buttons, a suit of mobbs, five pounds and half penny, two gold rings, a black silk hood which have been since stolen by some person or persons unknown but saith that the silver cup now in the hands of William Thompson is the very cup so stolen and the gold ring in the hands of William Musgrave is one of the rings so stolen as aforesaid and were respectively delivered to them and this informant was told by Hester Norton who was lately this informant’s servant who stole all the said goods and money as this informant believes.
Sworn before James Dodsworth                      Signed: George Gray
                Bound in £20 to [prosecute]
Gray’s statement includes confirmation that he was the owner of the goods, as proof that goods were taken from an identifiable person. It states the value of items taken and evidence of the seriousness of the alleged crime through the breach of trust by a servant who stole from her employer. Gray’s signature provides evidence of his literacy and his statement is marked to show that Gray was bound by a financial bond to prosecute Hester at the following assizes.

City of York - The Examination of Hester Norton, singlewoman taken the 10th day of May 1735.
Being charged with stealing a silver tumbler, four half crowns, a pair of silver studs, two pairs of little silver buttons, a suit of mobs, five pounds and half penny, two gold rings, a black silk hood.  Confesseth she stole the said Tumbler and two rings from George Gray on Saturday night last but denys she stole any besides.
Taken before James Dodsworth     Hester Norton  X
Hester’s statement takes the form of her confession to having stolen all the items recovered and a denial in respect of any other items reported stolen by Gray. Without further proof Hester was indicted only for the theft of items she attempted to sell. Hester’s mark demonstrates the inequalities between the accused and accusers.
Committal papers prepared for trial at the assizes provide a useful tool for examining how suspects were identified and evidence gathered. However, depositions are not wholly transparent and the modern reader should bear in mind that witness statements are legal constructs, drafted to achieve specific aims. Details of a crime might be exaggerated or minimised, depending on the outcome desired by the victim, while witnesses might edit their evidence in order to avoid implicating themselves as an accomplice.
York Castle, from a 1820 watercolour by Samuel Waud: including the Sessions House, County Gaol and Jury House.
Hester Norton appeared at the assizes for York city in March 1736 where she was charged with domestic burglary and felony of goods valued at 50 shillings. It is likely that Gray led the prosecution and, without legal guidance, may have found it difficult to argue successfully that Hester was guilty of burglary when she was permitted to be in his premises as an employee. As a result, Hester was found not guilty of burglary but guilty of felony. Nevertheless, the goods stolen greatly exceeded the capital threshold so that a capital sentence was inevitable. The presiding judge, Sir Lawrence Carter, kt, recommend Hester to the secretary of state (and ultimately the king) as a ‘fit object of mercy’, in order that her sentence might be commuted to transportation to America for fourteen years. Her reprieve was confirmed at the summer assizes, August 1736. Hester would have been held in gaol for over one year before being transported, that is, from the first time she was brought before a magistrate until the order for transportation was carried out. However, time served on remand or pending transportation was not taken into consideration and the term of transportation would have been for the full term imposed.

 English Convict Transportation to  America. c.17th to early 18th century. A group of English convicts being transported as indentured servants (Anon), accessed 30 August 2013.

Statements transcribed in this blog can be found in The National Archives, series ASSI 45/20/2.

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Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Nothing new under the Sun (or clouds)

Following an exchange of tweets with @Amateur_Casual and recurring headlines on the inclement weather we are currently experiencing in the U.K. and elsewhere, I felt compelled to write a blog drawing attention to similar weather patterns experienced during the period 1739-1741. I have an ill-informed interest in protecting the environment and tend to believe warnings by those concerned with global warming, damage caused to the ozone layer by CFC’s, and the melting ice-cap. On the other hand, extreme/unusual weather trends are not new and, therefore, should not be unexpected.

Newspapers, such as the Newcastle Journal, and the York Courant carried reports on the prevailing and severe weather conditions throughout the period between January and May 1740. The website reports that the winter and spring of 1739/1740 was extremely severe, when sub-zero mean temperatures were recorded for both January and February. In January gales and ice in the Thames damaged shipping and sea-ice affected other ports along the English east coast. The Thames was frozen for about eight weeks and heavy snowfall remained on the ground until March, followed by great floods when the snow and ice melted. As a result of the severe weather conditions there were reports of deaths from exposure and riots in Norwich. Snow fell in London on 16th/17th May and by the end of the month moors on the Scottish borders were reported to be too frozen for cutting peat. The prolonged and severe weather conditions caused a shortage of vegetables and led to an outbreak of scurvy. Any relief from severe weather conditions was brief and in September and November 1740 London and the east coast experienced gales which caused loss of life and much damage to shipping, ports and buildings. In between the autumn gales, October 1740 was the coldest October on record. It saw uncommonly severe night frosts and there were wide reports of snow showers and ice on many rivers in England, with ice in Kent reported to be a half-inch thick.  At the same time, 1740-1743 experienced one of the worst dry spells of the eighteenth century, with prolonged heat and drought between June and September 1741.

The severe weather conditions had a significant impact on the agricultural, coal and shipping industries. When the rivers Tyne and Thames froze it became virtually impossible to export what coal could be mined to London. On 5th February 1740 the Leeds Mercury reported on the closure of collieries in Durham and Northumberland which put many out of work and created a scarcity of coal. No ships were able to pass up the Humber because of the ice and it has been estimated that about 500 fewer ships than usual used the port at Sunderland during the spring of 1740.[1] The situation was aggravated by the fact that weather conditions on the continent were worse than in England, which created demand for exports from England and put pressure on Parliament to restrict the export of certain food products.

Throughout the worst of the winter months newspapers carried reports on charitable relief to alleviate the suffering of the labouring poor.

York Courant, 8 Jan 1740: Freezing temperatures reported in York; Coals are risen to so exorbitant a price that a Chaldron which used to be sold for 13 or 14 shillings were sold last Saturday for £1 12s; Last week by an Order from Above an embargo was laid on all ships in the river; A storm did great damage to ships, keels and small crafts in the River Tyne.

York Courant, 15 Jan 1740: Report that weather improving, although the severest frost for 50 years; ‘Sir Edward Gascoigne, bart sent last week a wagon load of coal for the poor prisoners in the castle, another to Ouse bridge gaol; and several wagon loads more for distribution to the poor of the City;
Two eminent brewers, and several other considerable citizens, have likewise given away large quantities of coals for the same purpose’.

York Courant, 22 Jan 1740: Edward Thompson MP for the district has ordered that 40 guineas be paid to the Lord mayor for distribution to the poor in this rigorous season at the discretion of the Aldermen of each ward.

York Courant, 29 Jan 1740: Sir John Lister Kaye, bart, M.P., has ordered that 40 guineas be paid to the Lord mayor for distribution to the poor in present severe frost; William Garforth, esq gave £40 to be distributed amongst the poor; Leonard Thompson gave 20 guineas; Other gentlemen also gave money.

York Courant, 5 Feb 1740: Newcastle - The river Wear near Durham is frozen over; Walter Balckett M.P. for the district has given 200 guineas for distribution to the poor; George Bowes M.P. for Durham has given £200 for distribution to the poor; The Earl of Carlise give £50 for poor of Morpeth;
George Fox of York given 10 guineas.

Leeds Mercury, 5 Feb 1740: Newcastle - report that no ships able to pass up the Humber because of the ice; Mayor and aldermen ordered 50 guineas to be given to four parishes to be distributed by the ministers to the real objects of mercy, on account of the severe weather conditions; report on the scarcity of coal, particularly in Sandgarn and the severity of the weather depriving miners of employment.
‘The Coal Owners of the Colleries of Durham and Northumberland have been at very great Expence in clearing their Waggon Ways of Snows, and still continue to employ great Numbers of poor People in that Work, who are by the Severity of the Weather deprived of following any other employment. By theses Means the labouring People in this Neighbourhood have the Happiness to enjoy the Blessing of Plenty, whilst others in several parts of this Island are (by all Accounts) starving for want of subsistence.

The readers of this blog can draw their own opinions on the ‘happiness’ of the labouring poor at this time.

York Courant, 26 Feb 1740: Report from Beverley that Charles Pelham, M.P., has proved four large oxen and £10 worth of bread to the poor house-keepers of the town ; ‘and the same was distributed amongst the most necessitious, without regard to their being freemen or otherwise’.

York Courant, 11 March 1740 : ‘the Rev Mr Clayton, rector of Wensley, in this county, killed a fat ox and distributed it amongst the poor parishioners, and also gave a considerable sum of money for their relief’.

Nevertheless, although the poor were considered objects of mercy during the worst of the severe winter weather, similar outpourings of charity could not be expected to continue for the remainder of the year and for the majority of men and women caught up in the food riots of spring 1740, their primary motivation was the fear of hunger. Sir William Williamson, High Sheriff of Durham, June 1740 (TNA, SP36/50, ff. 425-432): ‘I cannot help adding the very indifferent crop last year (for it was in all these northern parts) the severe winter following and then the lancholly prospect we have of any crop this spring, are things that greatly affect every body, but especially the labouring part of mankind’.

As so succinctly expressed on The Today programme on Radio 4 this morning: ‘climate is what we expect, weather is what we experience’.

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[1] Ashton, T.S. (1959) Economic fluctuations in England, 1700-1800, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 35.

Monday, 10 June 2013

'The Real Moll Flanders: 18th Century Criminal Trials and Punishment’. Part 1 the sources

'The Real Moll Flanders: 18th Century Criminal Trials and Punishment’. Part 1 the sources

Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders was published in 1722 and for the historian illustrates the relationship between gender and the emerging consumer society. The availability of luxury textiles and accessories allowed Moll to dress above her rank, which in turn provided opportunities for her to commit acts of theft. Moll’s involvement in pickpocketing and shoplifting were opportunistic activities and in the eighteenth century a common theme in the court room and press was an association between pickpocketing and prostitution. Defoe based the character from his own observations of infamous female thieves appearing before the Old Bailey.

Moll in Bridewell, accessed 30 August 2013. 
Crimes at this time were divided between misdemeanours and felonies. In terms of theft, the distinction was between a petty and grand larceny. A petty larceny was theft of an item or items valued at one shilling or less and was generally punishable by whipping, the pillory and, occasionally, a short term in the gaol or house of correction, although, before 1780 prisons were really for debtors rather than criminals. A grand larceny concerned theft over one shilling and attracted the death penalty, though first offenders might claim ‘benefit of clergy’ and, before 1718, any man or women claiming that benefit would be branded and released. By the eighteenth century the term benefit of clergy was something of a nonsense as it was available to men and women, irrespective of whether they could read or recite the ‘neck verse’ (Psalm 51, verse 1) which had been the test in the seventeenth century. Generally it was only for a second or third offence that the death sentence might be called for.

1718 saw a significant change in the law. The Act of 1718 for the further Preventing Robbery, Burglary and other Felonies and for the more effectual Transportation of Felons made transportation to America for seven years or more the statutory punishment for those who successfully pleaded benefit of clergy and for a range of common law felonies. While the sentencing judge at the assizes might impose the death penalty on those convicted of the most serious offences, or repeat offenders, very few men and no women were capitally punished for theft in Yorkshire. [Periods examined cover 1735-1745 and 1765-1775]. Instead, most capital convicts were recommended for mercy by the assize judge, which was invariably granted, and the convict re-sentenced to transportation for 7 or 14 years, and occasionally for life.
Those who were capitally punished for theft were most often horse thieves who operated in gangs (such as Dick Turpin) or those convicted of burglary, as it was an attack on the home at a time when property was valued more highly than the individual. Putting this into perspective, while a thief might be sent to America for 7 years for the theft of goods valued at over one shilling, the sentence for manslaughter remained as branding on the left hand. Transportation to America ended following the war of Independence.

Building up the story from the records is not straight-forward, it requires patience and tenacity in wading through the range of possible sources. Records for the quarter sessions are held at local county record offices, these are becoming increasingly available on-line, and some parts of the country are more advanced in digitising there records than others. Other than the Old Bailey, assize records are held at the National Archives. Where they survive, the records for the rest of England can be found in the ASSI series and are filed by county. Appeals from sentencing decisions at the assizes for England and Wales can be found in the SP (State Papers).

The case of female thief, Hester Norton, found in The National Archives demonstrates the range of records reviewed to build up details of the case. The records of the business of the assizes are scattered across a range of collections and not all collections are complete. Witness statements (depositions) for Yorkshire were found in series ASSI 45/20/2. Court records of the case, conviction and sentence were in ASSI 41/2 and ASSI 41/3. The Appeal from the capital conviction can be found in SP36/39 and SP44/83. In other cases, details of fines imposed and recognisances/sureties forfeited may be found in the estreat rolls in TNA series E (Exchequer). Copies of indictments (charges) and traverses (challenges to indictments) may be found in TNA series KB (King’s Bench). As yet, few of these records are catalogued at item level and are therefore difficult to research.

Newspapers reports rarely contain any information beyond the names of individuals appearing before or sentenced at the assizes with one or two words of description. For the most notorious crimes, usually rape or murder, some Broadsides were produced reporting on the trial in some detail. Few cases heard outside London were reported in printed form but some printed articles have survived and can be found in the British Library, Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO).
More on Hester shortly.

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