In my exploration around Ripon’s three amazingly well preserved law and order museums I was touched at the ease at which a person’s life, regardless of their age or sex, or the seriousness of the crime, could be devastated by incarceration, transportation or death.
The Police and Prison museum was mentioned in an earlier post.
The Courtroom, however, is based upon a Victorian courtroom and has been well preserved. It presents some shocking facts about how crime was dealt with from before this period too. The ‘Quarter Sessions’ were held at: Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas and trial was by jury. Sentences passed here could send people to be punished in the market square or for more serious crimes to the County Assizes to hang.
From the seventeenth century the court could also sentence a ‘criminal’ to transportation to the colonies for up to 14 years. This could be instead of a death penalty. It was thought that criminal behaviour could spread so by removing it the problem it would literally go away by sending them to…
“His Majesties Colonies over the seas… preventing the communication of the cantagion.”
This was an extremely cruel system as many failed to return. Forgery was a capital offence, but this could be reduced to transportation. We usually link this to sending prisoners to New South Wales, Australia (1788-1868) as dramatised in the TV series Banished, but before this convicts were sent to the Americas from as early as 1610 to 1770’s.
Special gaols (jails) were built to house debtors. These were self-funding as inmates had to pay, if able, which made it difficult for them to clear the actual debts they were imprisoned for.
Suicide was judged as a crime and the bodies of such poor souls would be buried at crossroads rather than in consecrated ground.
Lesser sentences included whipping (for both sexes) pilloried or placed in stocks, was done publicly to humiliate and shame. Fines could be levied, but if the person was poor there was little point to this. When the standard of living improved then fines became more popular and they raised money to build more prisons, which were expensive to build and run.
A person could be bound over to keep the peace. It seemed normal for the harsher sentences to be levied against offenders who had already been before the court.
The last case of a man to be held in the stocks was in 1857. It was interesting to learn hat it was the Methodist and Evangelical Christians, who had previously been behind the banishment of slavery, who helped change public opinion and the law against such public cruelty as a punishment.
Vagrants and the poor had a different fate. If they stayed within the law and did not steal in order to feed their family they could end up in the harsh regime that was the workhouse. Ripon’s Workhouse certainly provides plenty of information about the long days and the harsh life of the individuals and families that were made to work there. Families were split, even mother’s from their children.
From being stripped and bathed at the entrance, to the early rise and long hours picking oakham (the threads were literally unpicked by hand (the phrase ‘money for old rope’ was born) to harder labour of breaking rocks. They did nothing to encourage people to stay willingly, but to make them work in the absence of any social welfare, they were places to avoid if possible.
Sophie’s Dream is to find an exciting life away from her strict education in a workhouse. She applies, with references, through an agency for a position as Governess in New South Wales. Along with other young women, she is chaperoned to their new life, beyond the social barriers in England. Abandoned on the quayside of Sydney, Sophie discovers the agency is a sham. Her instincts lead her to Mr Matthias Wells and a very different world opens up to her.
More about crime and justice within the era:
- Watch the BBC’s “Banished”