In Georgian times, you could be hanged for stealing anything worth more than a few shillings, as well as for a huge list of additional offences, few of which strike anyone today as deserving death. First offences attracted a sentence of death as much as repeated ones. In many cases, even age or gender made no difference. Though there was a natural reluctance to hang women and the young, it was still done.
To make sense of the Georgian obsession with the death penalty, it’s important to understand the theory that lay behind it.
Faced with swelling numbers of poor people, especially in London, the gentry and middle classes noted how many turned to crime to survive. Where we would look now to social and economic factors to explain this, they assumed there was an inherited tendency to criminal behaviour. Children of criminals would become criminals in their turn, whether by inheritance or early training. The only way to lower the number of criminals was to remove them and prevent them from breeding more. That meant death, or something close to it.
Georgian prisons were not seen as places of punishment, save for minor crimes. Even then, inmates were punished by making them do hard work for extraordinarily long hours. Just as today, society hoped a term in prison would deter the person from future crimes. Only they tried to make sure by the added punishments of poor food, crowded, unsanitary conditions and forced labour.
Prisons, for our eighteenth-century ancestors, were simply places to hold people safely, either before their trial or until the penalty could be imposed.
In the quest for a way to get rid of members of the criminal classes for as long as possible, someone dreamed up the idea of transporting them to overseas colonies and using them, more or less, as slaves there. People were needed for manual labour and to open up the land for agriculture. Why pay them, when you could use convicts for virtually nothing. And if they died on the journey, or from the diseases, bad food and harsh treatment after they arrived, they were condemned to death anyway. It saved the cost of employing a hangman.
Even if they survived to complete their sentence, few, if any, would be able to return to Britain. How would they earn the fare? Instead, most would settle permanently in their new country, providing yet more colonists to work the land and pay taxes.
The Land of the Not-Free
The first lands to receive this unasked-for bounty of cheap labour were the American colonies. For the Hanoverian kings of England, this seemed an ideal solution. The colonies were British territory. The original native inhabitants were not considered as having a say in whatever was done. And there was a need for labour and extra colonists. Especially British ones, since there were so many religious exiles flooding in from the rest of Europe. Who knew how these would settle down and respect the inestimable gift of becoming subjects of a British king?
So America it was. Then those pesky and rebellious colonists started causing trouble and expecting to have a say in the taxes they paid and the way they were governed. Such a damned cheek! King George III was trying his best to sweep away a century of constitutional monarchy in Britain and become an absolute monarch, ruling via a subservient parliament and ministerial toadies. He also had to deal with the wretched French all the time. The last thing he needed was rebellious colonists. Send in the army and put them down!
The Law of Unexpected Consequences
Sadly for King George, none of it worked. The American colonists defeated his armies and declared the independence and a republic. They even tried to get the colonists in Canada to join them. Of course, the miserable French helped them rebel and all kinds of vociferous critics of his rule took refuge amongst them, then published treasonable books. It was enough to drive a king potty!
Alongside these other issues can an unexpected problem for the British criminal justice system. The newly-minted states of the USA did not want to be used as a dumping ground for British ne’er-do-wells as an alternative to hanging them. They point-blank refused to accept any more.
A Parliamentary commission of 1785 found it hard to understand:
That the old system of transporting to America answered every good purpose that could be expected from it; that it tended directly to reclaim the objects on which it was inflicted, and to render them good citizens; that the climate being temperate, and the means of gaining a livelihood easy, it was safe to entrust country magistrates with the discretionary power of inflicting it … that it tended to break, in their infancy, those gangs and combinations which have since proved so injurious to the community; that it was not attended with much expense to the public …
One special relationship gone wrong it seems!
In another posting soon, I will look at how Britain responded to this quite unreasonable exhibition of liberal views by the rebellious Americans.
William Savage lives near the beautiful North Norfolk coast in Eastern England and writes historical mystery novels, set in Norfolk between 1760 and 1800. His first in the series, “An Unlamented Death“, appeared in January 2015. A second book is now in its final stages and will be published in Spring 2015.
Will is also a local historian. In that guise, he researches topics relevant to the general period of his historical writing, gives talks to local groups and societies and is a regular volunteer guide at a nearby National Trust property. He finally has time for doing all this now he has retired.
For eleven years, Will and his wife lived in the USA, latterly in southern Arizona. This experience sparked an enduring love of the breathtaking beauty of the Sonoran Desert, as well as the history of the American West, especially Native American art and culture. As a result, Will became intrigued by the figure of Coyote: the Trickster God of many indigenous cultures across western states of the USA.
Will’s book of fantasy Coyote stories – in affectionate homage to this powerful archetype of human experience – will be published later in the year.