Two strikes and you’re out: a ticket-of-leave man at Bow Street


From the landing of the First Fleet in 1787 to the arrival of the Hougoumont in January 1868 around 164,000 British men and women were transported to Australia for crimes committed in the British Isles. The last convicts may have landed in 1868 but the reality was that by the late 1850s transportation had dwindled to a trickle. The gold rush of the early ’50s had made the new colony a more attractive place for free settlers and the established communities of the continent were much less content to take the mother country’s convicts.

This presented the authorities in Britain with a problem; what to do with all those offenders that it had been so happy to send overseas. Hanging for all but murderers had been abandoned by the mid 1820s and the prison had come to dominate penal policy. But from New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land one idea was transported back to Britain.

Convicts were sentenced to 7 or 14 years transportation or life but there was a necessary opportunity for some reduction. If a convict behaved themselves and settled into their new existence, perhaps being bound to work on a freeman’s farm or in government employ, they might earn a ‘ticket-of-leave’. In essence this was very like parole today; the convicted man or woman would have some of their sentence remitted and they could live free in the community so long as they continued to obey the law.

The answer for the British authorities was to apply a similar system in domestic penal policy. So prisoners in gaol could now earn parole and live as ‘ticket-of-leave’ men (or women) and go home to their families and friends. However, ANY transgression would land them back in prison to complete their sentence*.

George McDougall was just one such ticket-of0-leave man. Usually the nineteenth-century newspapers were quick to condemn the practice of early release and in 1862 the garroting panic was blamed on the ticket-of-leave men and there were widespread calls for a toughening up of penal policy.  However, and perhaps because McDougall was a clear subject for sympathy, here the paper sided with the convict.

McDougall appeared at Bow Street Police Court in September 1862 (a few weeks after the panic had began to subside) charged with having revoked his license by his ‘subsequent misconduct’. The Scot had been sentenced to 10 years for burglary in 1858 and was sent to a convict prison. There he served his time until 1860 when he was released on a ticket-of-leave and sent home to his wife in Scotland .

He lived peacefully until ‘a few days ago’ he became ’embroiled in a drunken disturbance in the streets of Edinburgh’ and was arrested and taken before the justices of the peace and fined. Not by any means a serious offence by but serious for George because the authorities were obliged to inform the Home Secretary and a warrant was issued to bring him to London to have his license revoked.

The man was clearly very ill: despite being ‘in dreadful ill-health and [suffering from] consumption’ (TB) George was brought back to the capital and presented at Bow Street. Here the old man told the court that it was very hard that he should be sent back to prison to serve out the remaining eight years of his sentence as he was ‘a dying man, almost’. He asked for medical assistance and for leniency.

He may have got the former but he certainly didn’t get the latter. The magistrate was sympathetic but his hands, he said, were tied. He was ‘bound to administer the law’ and George was packed off to one of the convict prison (such as Pentonville or Millbank) that served the Victorian penal system. Given the harsh regimes that existed in the 1860s I would be surprised if George ever saw Scotland or his wife again.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 15, 1862]

  • I believe a similar principal exists for life prisoners who are released on license today.

One thought on “Two strikes and you’re out: a ticket-of-leave man at Bow Street

  1. I too believe that such a principle exists today, in that someone who breaches their parole, but especially a Life Licence, can be returned to serve the rest of their sentence. However, the judge at the latest hearing does have some discretion, and I suspect (hope?) that in a case such as George McDougall, given his state of health and age, discretion would be applied.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s