Three prisoners appeared at the North London Police court in early May 1899 and each of their cases was affected by new legislation, passed the previous year. According to the reporter from The Standard this was the Criminals Act of 1898 but I’m struggling to find the exact piece of legislation referred to.
1898 did see the passing of the Criminal Evidence Act which allowed defendants to testify (and which allowed wives, for example, to give evidence against husbands) but I don’t believe that is the act in question. That act was mostly concerned with the veracity of witness testimony but in the report I’ve selected today the magistrate was more concerned with discriminating between ‘habitual and casual’ criminals.
None of the prisoners were named but two of them were accused of deserting their wives and children, leaving them chargeable to the parish (and thus making them a burden on the ratepayers). Mr Cluer, the sitting magistrate, made a point of saying that while he intended to send both men to prison this was a much ‘more lenient punishment than probably they deserved’.
They owed money for the non-payment of maintenance to their wives and that was why they would be locked up but even then they would probably enjoy a better lifestyle behind bars than their wives and children and even by comparison to many of the poorer ratepayers in the area who lived honestly. He was clearly disgusted that he couldn’t throw the proverbial book at them.
The third prisoner mentioned in this report was a young man who had upset a costermonger’s cart and assaulted a policeman. As a result he’d been charged with a breach of the peace. On this occasion however, the police officer who had had his coat torn by the young man’s act ‘of ruffiansim’ was in forgiving mood and have the lad a good character.
In consequence of this the magistrate said he would treat him as a ‘second-class misdemeanant’ and that while he would also go to gaol, it would be for a shorter period and without some of the attached conditions (presumably hard labour) that he would have handed down had he ‘absolute control’ of the law.
So it seems that this new law tempered the ability of magistrates to exercise discretion and signaled another turn in the longer move towards allowing more and more offences to be dealt with summarily and with more lenient sentences. Arguably this process began in the 1840s and 1850s with Summary Jurisdiction Acts that removed petty thieves and younger offenders from the jury courts. It continued into the twentieth century and our own 21st. If someone can send me a link to details of the Criminals Act (1898) I will be grateful.
[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 2, 1899]
If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here