Criminal justice in Regency England was sometimes more a case of criminal injustice, for both the victim and the perpetrator. For starters, until the middle of the eighteenth century there were no authorised police, or constables for UK readers. The responsibility for law and order in the country was up to each village, town, city, etc. What passed for a constabulary was often little more than night watchmen, who were unpaid, and commonly senior citizens. They could and did arrest criminals, but their primary activities revolved around locking up rowdy drunks and escorting the less inebriated home after a night of carousing. They were ineffective, unless you count their responsibility as town crier, which, I guess, was important in keeping the citizens informed about the time of day or night.
Something that surprised me when I found it was that the victim was the one that had to investigate the crime and apprehend the criminal! They then arranged for the arrest and acted as prosecutor at the trial, with the accused required to defend themself. Trials were quick and usually concluded in one day, including judgement and sentencing.
A problem with this type of justice was the possibility for corruption, which was common. And if the accused was well known, or worse, popular in the town, the likelihood of conviction was low. The victim might even find themselves ostracized for bringing the complaint forward or worse, persecuted for their temerity.
Until 1749, with the establishment of the Bow Street Runners (their popular title, not their official one), the crown had little to no involvement in law enforcement, having left that up to the citizenry. Magistrate Henry Fielding founded the force, originally comprising six men. They were attached to the Bow Street magistrate’s office and paid by the magistrate with funds from the government. They did not patrol; their job was to serve writs and arrest offenders by order of the magistrates, which allowed them to travel all over the country in the performance of these duties.
Fielding’s brother, John Fielding, carried on the work after his death, with them gaining more recognition from the government, although funding was sporadic. Their major claim to fame was in serving as a template of sorts for the way policing developed in the years that followed.
To correct a popular misconception, the people of London did not nickname the Bow Street Runners “Robin Redbreasts”; that was a name give to the Bow Street Horse Patrol, begun in 1763 to curb highway robbery. They were so successful that when funding stopped, the highwaymen returned with a vengeance, and it was not until 1805 the patrol came back. The nickname came from the scarlet waistcoat they wore under their blue greatcoats.
And what of punishment, with judgement and sentence handed down? There were a few options, none of them particularly inviting, in my opinion.
A favorite verdict seemed to be public hanging, of which the carrying out of the sentence was a festive affair that I’m not inclined to explore in this blog. Reserved for the most serious crimes, only the Assizes Court could supposedly impose it, although there are cases of death sentences handed down without that court’s involvement. As the nineteenth century wore on, though, a punishment of death became increasingly rare, especially for minor crimes like pick-pocketing and food theft, which were capital offenses at first.
A magistrate could also decide on gaol (the British spelling of jail), but that was nobody’s idea of a picnic. The original intention, that this would be a less severe form of punishment, was laudable, although false. Prisons soon turned into grim, fearful places with two objectives: to deter people from committing crimes in the first place, and to rehabilitate the inmates and encourage their reform into fine, upstanding citizens upon release. Of course, in too many cases gaol proved a training ground for hardened criminals, and a refiner’s fire of sorts for the less hardened, turning a lot of them into career criminals through forced association with fellow inmates.
A third option, transporting, sent the criminal away to where they would no longer be a blight on English society. Sending convicts to America was popular, although that ceased with the rebellion by those ungrateful wretches across the Atlantic (sarcasm, always fun, isn’t it?) They sent many to Australia, where they eventually built that country into what it is today. (No need for effusive gratitude, Australians, we know you feel it, and the British government was happy to do their part, lol).
Fines were also an option, but a useless one usually. Why bother to levy a fine against a peasant who had no money to pay it, anyway?
One last comment about crime and punishment, and this relates to my current WIP. It was rare to see a gentleman accused of a crime of any sort. Gentlemen were as a whole considered above such nonsense as dirtying their hands in the commission of crime, and a regular citizen would never be brave (or foolish) enough to level such charges against their betters. Should one be suspected of any type of crime, outside forces would come to undertake such a distasteful chore. This is where the Bow Street Runners could, and were, used in a lot of situations. They were above the class system in place in Regency England, and in cases like that would come, at the invitation of the town magistrate, to arrest the individual for trial. A magistrate never heard the case locally, rather; the gentleman went to a court like the Old Bailey, accompanied by the Bow Street Runner who made the arrest. In this way, they visibly carried out justice, and it did not taint the town with the rumor of having treated someone like that unfairly.
Now, I have some questions for you, which might serve to whet your appetite for my next release in late August or early September. Would Darcy ever stoop to committing robbery, or anything of an illegal nature? What if the future of Pemberley were in danger, and he did not have the funds to pay his debts? Would he be willing to forfeit his family’s estate, or would he be inclined to do whatever it took to save his beloved home and his status in England and Derbyshire? And if he were to lose Pemberley, how could he look after Georgiana?
Well? Have I piqued your interest yet?