Monday, 29 September 2014

The History of Crime from a Legal Perspective: Gender and the Yorkshire Food Riots, 1740.


British Crime Historians Symposium 4, 26 September 2014.
Paper presented by Dr Rhiannon Markless, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Roehampton.

This paper focuses on judicial responses to the men and women who participated in food riots that erupted during the spring of 1740 in the West and North Ridings of Yorkshire. The background to the rioting was that two consecutive harsh winters resulted in the failure of the harvests and the loss of livestock. Prices of grain increased by almost 100 per cent during the first six months of 1740 and there was real fear that basic food stuffs would become unaffordable or even unavailable. 

Magistrates were empowered to manage those concerns by controlling grain prices through the Assize of Bread and Ale, while other statutes allowed them to regulate the trade and movement of grain. However, there is no evidence that an Assize of Bread was held in either the West or North Ridings in the spring of 1740. In contrast, the East Riding remained peaceful where quarter session records show that an assize of bread was held each year as a matter of course. Merchants in the East Riding were also brought before the quarter sessions when they failed to comply with the terms of their trading licences. It seems that justices for the East of the county were far more sensitive to local concerns than their colleagues in the rest of the county.
 
 
Prisoners brought from the gaol, York, July 1740.[1]
       George Parker, cloth maker
       Samuel Parker, cloth maker
       Robert Conyer, cloth maker
       John Webster, cloth maker
       Martha Awtey, spinster
       Thomas Secker, clothier
       Ann Earnshaw, spinster
       Grace Askwith, wife of Benjamin Askwith, labourer
       William Nussey, blacksmith
       Joseph Mitchell, cloth maker
       Peter Whitworth, husbandman
       William Fisher, cloth maker
       Matthew Fenton, carpenter
       Joshua Awtey, cloth maker
       Joseph Thomas, cloth maker
       Richard Swallow, cloth maker
       John Jackson, cloth maker

If we look at list of prisoners above, we can see that the majority of men indicted for their part in these food riots were described as cloth workers. The reason for this is that regions of England which had a thriving cloth industry, such as Yorkshire, tended not to be self-sufficient in food production and working people were, therefore, more responsive to changes in food pricing. Nevertheless, despite the large numbers of men and women reported to have participated in the food riots, quarter session and assize records indicate a failure to charge all but a few men and even fewer women with any offence, of which even fewer were actually convicted.
The types of offence that might be committed during the course of a riot included the act of riot, theft, trespass to property and trespass to the person. Each category of offence could be broken down to more specific offences: so, for example, an act of riot encompassed a rout, common law riot and statutory riot; while the definition of theft similarly had statutory and common law definitions. Statutory and common law offences co-existed, unless specified otherwise by Parliament.
 
To clarify, the common law offence of ‘participation in a riot’ was a misdemeanour involving three or more people who gathered together with the intent of committing an unlawful act and then set out to commit it. A ‘rout’ was a misdemeanour which arose in similar circumstances, without evidence of any other offence. The Riot Act of 1715 created the capital offence of riotous assembly, involving twelve or more people.[2] In those circumstances a magistrate was required to read out a proclamation for the crowd to disperse, failing which, those who remained were committing a capital offence. Magistrates tended to interpret the Act as restricting their authority to proceed against any rioters until the hour had passed.[3] Although indictments arising out of the Yorkshire food riots are couched in terms of ‘riotous assembly’, the statutory description, it appears from the sentences imposed that men and women were convicted for one of the common law misdemeanours. It is possible that grand jurors were reluctant to find that participation in the capital offence had been established or petty jurors to convict for the more serious offence.

The riotous events that occurred in the area around Dewsbury in the West Riding occurred over a three day period. They demonstrate an intense weekend of unrest in the area where an estimated numbers of between 100 and 1,000 men and women were observed participating in the riots. What is clear from the court records is that both male and female representation in the court records was greatly understated.
Events began one Saturday morning when about 400 men and women assembled at Dewsbury in order to prevent the export of corn to Lancaster. Rioters went on to attack carts carrying grain, pulled down or damaged mills and destroyed much of the grain they could not carry. The rioters were intercepted by the High Sheriff and local M.P. The statutory Proclamation to disperse was eventually read out and, although there were some reports of stone throwing, the mob dispersed within the prescribed hour.
Six men were charged with riotous assembly when they appeared at the next quarter sessions. The bills against each of them were dismissed by the grand jury. Another four other men appeared at quarter sessions one year later charged with riotous assembly. One defendant was acquitted and three ‘submitted’ to the court, of which at least one of them was ordered to pay a fine, indicating that he was convicted for a misdemeanour.
Why were no women charged? – As observed by E.P. Thompson and others, it is possible that woman and children were present at the beginning of the food riots but dispersed once their point had been made, and before the hour following the proclamation to disperse had expired.[4] The legal situation in England and Wales was further confused on the point as to whether the law offered any special protection to women involved in riot, expressed in Dalton’s practice directions for JP’s:
If a number of women (or children under the age of discretion) do flock together for their own cause, this is no assembly punishable by these statutes, unless a man of discretion moved them to assemble for the doing of some unlawful act.[5]
The legal confusion continued and was perpetuated by Robert Southey in the early nineteenth century:
[W]omen are far more likely to be mutinous; they stand less in fear of the law, partly from ignorance, partly because they presume upon the privilege of their sex, and therefore in all public tumults they are foremost in violence and ferocity.[6]
Therefore, there may well have been a generally held, if erroneous belief, that a woman could participate in a riot without being legally pursued at law. Alternatively, the situation was deliberately misinterpreted by some, to the advantage of women.
Two women were identified as verbally abusing one mill worker, so that he feared for his safety and fled from the area, though no prosecution for that offence appears in the quarter session records. The male victim may have been too embarrassed to publicly admit that he had been intimidated by two women. He may also have been satisfied that they had been punished by a remand in gaol for two months on other charges pending their trial.
On the subject of theft, the 1737 Corn Act created a felony of theft from a granary, or the destruction of a granary or its contents, punishable by transportation for seven years.[7] However, there was a problem in establishing theft where multiple parties owed the grain held in a mill house. The question was: whose grain had been stolen and by which rioter? Yorkshire assizes and quarter sessions records suggest that charges of theft from ‘unknown’ persons generally failed. In the aftermath of a riot it would have been difficult to establish who took the grain if the goods were not found in the possession of the accused or there was no evidence to establish that the accused had passed the stolen goods to a third person.
In the Yorkshire riots, female rioters appear to have been more closely concerned in verbal threats and criminal damage, such as removing slates of roofs to allow access by male rioters, who proceeded to ransack the granaries and steal sacks of grain. That created a problem in providing evidence of any form of burglary – where one person both broke and entered a building. There was no specific offence of criminal damage at this time and removal of the slates was a civil trespass, which might be pursued in the civil courts for damages. These events suggest the operation of coverture, so that female participants were protected from the full force of the law.
As listed above, fourteen men and three women were brought from the gaol to answer two charges of theft at the Yorkshire assizes in July 1740. William Nussey and Matthew Fenton were singled out as having been “very active” in the riots and, as neither man was employed in the cloth trade as were the majority of rioters, it is possible that they were singled out as ringleaders. The grand jury dismissed the bills against two male and each of the three female defendants: the five of them would have spent at least two months in gaol on remand pending that decision. Charges against the remaining twelve men for theft were found, following which, eight men were found guilty and sentenced to transportation for seven years.
Reports of the riots and thefts mention some names more often than others, possibly because they were better known (or more notorious) in the community. Therefore, certain individuals account for more than one entry on the database of offenders. The ninety-four entries in the court records arising out of the riots consist of only thirty-five men and twelve women accused of one or more offences. William Nussey was cited as being concerned in seven different incidents arising out of the riots but convicted for just one act of theft, for which he was ordered to transportation for seven years. The failure to prosecute all the claims against Nussey and others is likely to have occurred because the courts tended to take the view that a successful conviction for one offence negated the need for a conviction on lesser or similar charges.
There are a number of reasons that might explain the relatively low number of men and women charged with offences arising out of the riots. It seems that the overriding aims of those holding office was to appease the masses by invoking trading regulations, while demonstrating judicial action taken to protect the propertied class. Prosecutions for ‘pure’ riots lay with local government officers but when riots were associated with larceny, as with the food riots, they might delegate those responsibilities and require mill owners and the like to enter into recognizances to prosecute. Otherwise, minor assaults, trespasses to property and criminal damage were matters that might be settled privately outside the court structure or under civil actions for trespass.

The overall outcome from the assizes was that five men received some form of punishment by way of fine or gaol and another ten men were ordered to be transported for seven years. Four men convicted at the assizes appealed against their sentence to transportation, although Judge Reynolds (the assize judge) advised the Secretary of State that, in his opinion, the sentences should stand as an example to others. However, no one was capitally convicted for statutory riot and all claims against female rioters failed.

So why did all the indictments of female rioters fail at the assizes? It would be unfair to describe female roles as merely subservient given the descriptions of their activities. The actions of both male and female rioters were audacious: thefts did not take place in secret, substantial damage was caused to property and some victims were threatened with violence. Women were present in significant numbers and were as active as men; they were no less of a threat and no less deserving of punishment than men.

The pre-trial processes do not provide evidence of gender divergent attitudes when more than 20 per cent of people referred to the assize and quarter sessions for their participation in the riots of Dewsbury were female (a slightly higher percentage of women than generally seen in either court at the time). The failure to bring those women to trial either points towards a gendered dimension in the decision-making process of the grand jury who may have dismissed the charges against them or that private settlements were agreed on the misdemeanours. As a result, attitudes of the petty jury and assize judge to female rioters are untested for the Yorkshire riots.
Failure to prosecute any man or woman on a capital charge under the Riot Act may be explained in terms of evidential difficulties once the hour had passed and crowds dispersed, or, more probably, because of the preference of local magistrates to restore and maintain peace in the community. Nevertheless, despite the risk of further inflaming the rioters, a number of protestors were seized at the scene of the riots and held in gaol pending trial. If men had been convicted in great numbers, imprisoned or transported, there would have been a knock-on effect to their employers in the local textile industry.
In conclusion, once indictments against the male rioters came to trial on capital charges for breaking and entering, they may have failed if a woman carried out the ‘breaking’ and a man gained ‘entry’ into a building. Charges for theft may have failed if there were problems identifying what goods had been stolen and by whom. There were further evidential problems in identifying the owner of stolen grain when a miller held corn belonging to multiple farmers. Evidential technicalities may have played at least as great a part as gender in determining which individuals to name in the bills of preferment. The same evidential issues also allowed a sympathetic grand jury to dismiss an indictment or a petty jury to find a defendant not guilty, or guilty of a lesser offence.
My point is not that gender was not relevant but that consideration of gender etcetera was not necessary until all other evidential and procedural stages were completed.




[1] TNA ASSI 44/55, Gaol Delivery York July 1740.
[2]  1 Geo. I, c.5 (1715) Act for Preventing Tumults and Riotous Assemblies.
[3] Hayter, Tony (1978) The Army and the Crowd in Mid-Georgian England, London: Macmillan.
[4] Thompson, E.P. (1971) ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past and Present, No. 50, pp. 76-136.
[5] Dalton, Michael (1705) The Country Justice, London: William Rawlins and Samuel Roycroft.
[6] Southey, R (1814 edition) Letters from England, London.
[7] 11 Geo., II, c. 22 (1737) ‘An Act for punishing such persons as shall do injuries and violence to the persons or properties of His Majestey’s subjects with intent to hinder the Exportation of corn’.

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