The Crimes of Poverty

Punished by hard labour or transportation

By the late eighteenth century there was an appreciable increase in larceny, but not all cases led to convictions.  Juries would sometimes be encouraged by the court to return verdicts in defiance of the evidence in order that the necessity of passing the death sentence might be avoided in trivial cases.  Articles of value might be held by the jury to have been less than twelve pence – the boundary between larceny and petty larceny. 

However, perhaps because of poverty associated with the long war against France, sentencing seems to have become harsher in the early nineteenth century. The forty-two cases from Harpenden, recorded between 1799 and 1840, bring home the poverty of the poor and the continuing brutality of the law.  Twelve of the accused were acquitted, four were transported, thirteen received goal sentences ranging from a week to a year, mostly combined with solitary confinement and a whipping, two were whipped and discharged, and the remainder fined.

Entries in the Hertford County Sessions Books (Vol.X 1833-1843) give an insight into the harshness of punishments for crimes – most of which were probably committed in order to feed the family:

  • 1840  William Swallow of Harpenden, labourer, for stealing barley, value 5 shillings – three months hard labour, 2 weeks solitary and whipped.
  • 1841   Aaron Hucklesby of Harpenden, labourer, for stealing a fowl, value 1 shilling – convicted before, transported for 10 years.
  • 1841   James Tomlin of Harpenden, labourer, for stealing bran and barley, value 10s 6d, from his master Thomas Cox, milled – one month hard labour, the first and last weeks solitary.
  • 1841  Thomas Hartley of Harpenden, labourer, for stealing two pounds of beef, value 3 pence – two months hard labour and whipped.
  • 1841  George Lowe of Wheathampstead, labourer, for stealing food, value 10 pence from Thomas Collyer of Harpenden, labourer – convicted before, transported for 10 years.
  • 1843  Ann Elizabeth Hill of Harpenden, spinster, for stealing £1.10s in money from John Ells, butcher, and a shawl, value 3 shillings from John Warren, labourer – three months hard labour, one week to be solitary, on each charge.

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