Another habitual criminal rightly punished, or a missed opportunity to make a difference?

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Following a spate of street robberies (or muggings) in London and elsewhere in the 1860s, colloquially known as the ‘garroting panic’, parliament passed a series of loosely connected laws that aimed to clamp down on criminal offending. This was a kneejerk reaction to a press conceived ‘moral panic’ and – as is so often the case – it would have a lasting impact on those caught by it.

One of those was Thomas Sims who, in April 1883, was working as a bricklayer in East London. Sims was trying to ‘go straight’ having previously been convicted of a crime that had earned him a sentence of seven years in prison.

Thomas had been released  on a ticket of leave (the nineteenth century’s equivalent of parole) some time around the beginning of 1882 and had been duly reporting himself to the Bethnal Green police station as was required under the terms of the Habitual Criminals Act (1869).

This legislation meant that anyone released on license would have to report the police once a month for the duration of their sentence and often afterwards for up to seven years. Offenders were recorded on a register and the police checked that they were ‘behaving’ themselves. At any time they could be brought before a magistrate if the police felt they were complying with the terms of their parole or were engaging in disreputable behavior.

Quite obviously this made it very difficult for men like Thomas Sims to escape the taint of prison and reintegrate into an honest life. He certainly thought so and in December 1882 he moved to Spitalfields and told the Bethnal Green station of his plans. The sergeant explained that he would now need to report in to the Commercial Street station but only did so once, on Boxing Day 1882.

He was picked up by police and gave them a false address. Detective sergeant Rolfe (K Division) brought Sims before Mr Hannay at Worship Street and said that, when asked, the prisoner had failed to produce his license. The magistrate asked him why he’d stopped reporting in and Sims told him that:

‘he would not go on reporting himself as everybody then knew that he had been convicted’, adding that he would rather back inside.

Hannay told him the act, ‘however stringent, was a very necessary one and require dot be enforced’. As Sims still had six months left of his sentence the justice sent him to prison for a year at hard labour, that 12 months to include the six he had outstanding.

Thomas Sims thanked him and was taken away to renew his acquaintance with a prison cell. Having stayed out of obvious trouble for over a year, and having held down a job as well, this prisoner was now back inside, a burden to the state.

There was worse to come. Following Sims’ release he went back to his offending pattern and was prosecuted in October 1884 for stealing money and a gold watch and chain, he was listed as 30 years of age. He got another 12 months in Cold Bath Fields prison. His conviction cited his previous ones, – the 12 months from Mr Hannay and the original seven years (with 3 years supervision) from Northallerton Quarter Sessions in October 1876, for stealing a gold watch and chain.

Another Thomas Sims (aged 42) was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey in September 1894 for robbery with violence. Again, as in both his other listed larcenies, the stolen item was a gold watch and chain – he got five more years. Is this the same Thomas Sims? It is possible as ages can vary in the registers, and the crimes are quite similar. If it was Thomas then he didn’t live much longer, dying in 1903 aged just 51.

What a sad life and what a missed opportunity in 1883 to let a man ‘go straight’.

[from The Standard Monday, 23 April 1883]

A real life ‘Fletch’: The man who had (too many) convictions

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One of the innovations of the Victorian criminal justice system was its ability to track offenders over many years. In the second half of the eighteenth century the Bow Street Police court had (under the leadership of the Fielding brothers, Henry and John) pioneered the collection of data in relation to crime. John, who was blind, was supposedly able to identify an offender that had appeared before him previously by voice alone. The Bow Street Runners collected information on criminals in an early form of the modern police database, but much of this was lost when the office was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of June 1780.

Effective use of data would have to wait for the second half of the nineteenth century, and was supported by the invention of photography and the creation of a professional police force. The ‘garroting panic’ of 1862 led to the passing of the Habitual Offenders Act in 1869. This created a register of offenders who were obliged to check in with police on their release from prison, and continue to do so for the next seven years. Records now noted all previous convictions, physical characteristics, as well as age, occupation, place of birth etc.

It had now become very difficult for anyone who had been in trouble with the law to escape the consequences of their past, something modern offenders and probation and prisoner support services are only too aware of.

John McCann was just such a ‘habitual’ offender. Like ‘Fletcher’’, the anti-hero of the popular British TV comedy Porridge, John McCann was a criminal who ‘seemed to treat arrest as an occupational hazard’. By 1881 he had already noticed up 16 previous convictions when he appeared at Marylebone Police court in mid July.

On this occasion he had been found lurking around the rear of a property in Charles Street by a constable on his beat. PC David West (160D) discovered McCann hiding by a workshop door at two in the morning and, suspecting he was up to no good, challenged him.

McCann ‘became very violent’ and hit out at the policeman, punching and kicking him, and running away. PC West managed, with difficulty, to secure him and take him into custody.

At Marylebone Mr Cooke was told that McCann had convictions for assault, theft, and other offences. He’d served several prison sentences but none seem to have deterred him from his chosen life course. He had, the justice declared, ‘been guilty of almost every kind of offence and spent nearly all his time in prison’. He would now go to gaol again, this time for six months with hard labour.

I am no apologist for violence or the burglary that McCann was probably about to commit and it is hard to see him as anything other than a serial offender. But what chance did he have once he was in the system? Tracked by the police and subject to periodic shakedowns by officers whenever a crime fitting his MO occurred we might imagine that John McCann was a target for the police whenever he showed his face. His chances of ‘going straight’ (as ‘Fletcher’ eventually did) were limited at best.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 18, 1881]

A late garrotting in Chelsea as the panic endures

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In 1862 there was a moral panic about street robbery.  I’ve covered it elsewhere on this blog and it has been well-documented in the work of Jennifer Davis. The so-called garroting panic began July of that year when a member of Parliament (Sir Hugh Pilkington) was attacked in the street in London. In modern language Sir Hugh was ‘mugged’: thieves used a choke hold from behind to disable him, then rifled his pockets for valuables and left him gasping for air as they ran off.

Within days and over the next few weeks the newspapers carried reports of similar attacks in the capital and across the country. It was as if a generation of criminals had been inspired by the events of the 17 July and had taken to the streets to garrote each and every suitable victim they could find.

Of course, this was not what was happening at all. Rather it seems that the press were exaggerating the extent of the problem (whilst moralizing on the state of the nation and pointing fingers at those they held responsible) and seeing hitherto fairly ordinary robberies as garroting.  The effect was fairly dramatic however; within weeks the public was on edge and started to report otherwise minor incidents as potential attacks. Newspapers carried adverts for anti-garrote technology such as studded metal collars and this was, in turn, parodied in Punch which showed groups of Londoners marching through the streets and armed to the teeth like some band of medieval questing knights.

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All histories tell us that the panic only lasted for a few weeks or months before fading away. This is the nature of moral panics – they burn brightly while the media and public is interested, but die fairly quickly once the novelty has worn off. But in December 1862 it seems the residual panic was still newsworthy as this case from the Westminster Police court shows.

On 3 December Michael Murray had been collecting the entrance money at a ‘teetotallers’ entertainment’ in Chelsea. Just before he reached his home in Simmond Street he was jumped by four men who used ‘most serious violence’ and robbed him of the takings (18s) and his pocket watch. The case before Mr Paynter was all about whom was responsible and who could be put on trial. In the end he determined that James Hurley would face a trial at Old Bailey for the robbery, the case against the (unnamed) others involved was ongoing.

Hurley, whose lengthy criminal record was read out in court, was convicted of the robbery and sentenced to 10 years penal servitude. A decade or so earlier he would have been transported and the decline of this option was one of the causal factors behind the panic about street robbery in the early 1860s.

Hurley was followed into the dock at Westminster by Daniel Turnham and Henry Welham where they were charged with a garrote attack on William Toy, and old cavalryman who had served with the 9th Lancers. He was attacked on his way home and choked from behind and hit on the hand with a metal object. The two men ripped his waistcoat pocket to get at the 17sand 6dhe was carrying in it. The police were quickly on the scene and set off in pursuit, catching the Welham who was already wanted for another robbery some days before.  Turnham was picked up soon afterwards. Mr Paynter remanded then in custody so a case could be built against them. They don’t appear in the Old Bailey records so perhaps on this occasion they got lucky, many others did not.

There were real consequences to this media constructed crime panic. The police arrested many more ordinary people for street crime than they had in previous years, redefining simple thefts and assaults as ‘highway robberies’. The courts played their part too, handing down much stiffer penalties for those the police brought before them. Parliament passed the Security Against Violence Act the following year (1863), which reintroduced whipping for some violent offences (although it was rarely used). In 1864 the Penal Servitude Act meant that second offenders were hit with five year minimum sentences as Parliament determined to be ‘tough on crime’ (if not on the causes of it).

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

No sign of the garrotting panic but a Victorian ‘Wonga’ scam is exposed

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Prompted by a facebook post from the Police historian Neil Bell I decided today to go back to 1862 to see if there was any hint of that year’s big crime story in the Police court reportage. 1862 was the year that Sir Hugh Pilkington MP was attacked by robbers on his way home from the Houses of Parliament. He was attacked from behind, throttled (‘garrotted’) and robbed. It was a form of highway robbery (‘mugging’ we would probably call it) but it sparked a moral panic about returning ‘ticket of leave’ criminals and the perceived ‘softness’ of the criminal justice system.

The panic died done fairly quickly and historians have shown that in reality street crime was no more prevalent in 1862 than it was in years either side of that; it was the reaction of the police, public and government to the press coverage that was the real story, not the incidents of ‘garrotting’ themselves.

Plus câ change.

Meanwhile over at Worship Street Police court things were a little more mundane. No garrotting or otherwise dangerous street crime here, just a case of unlicensed pawnbrokers. It’s still interesting however, as we learn much more about the everyday life of the Victorian city through these snippets of ‘real life’.

William Murray and James Spriggs were both brought up as offenders against the Excise Act. The prosecution – led by officers from the Inland Revenue – alleged that the men had been carrying out the business of pawnbrokers without have the required license to do so. The pair were trading as chandlers (sellers of all sorts of cheap goods) rather than pawnbrokers, but were proven to have extended loans to local people in the East End in exactly the same way as ‘brokers operated.

It was a well executed investigation and both men were duly convicted. The magistrate, Mr Leigh, handed down fines of £12 10plus costs to each man, the minimum he was obliged to levy. Each was warned that a failure to pay would result in them going to prison for a month.

The excisemen reported that they had been investigation many more instances of this sort of offence in recent months, and mostly in East London. These two shopkeepers were ‘ostensibly’ chandlers in Bethnal Green – hardly a well paid occupation – but both could afford to employ a lawyer to defend them. They were doing very well out of this sideline to the day job.

The court was told that there were plenty of ‘leaving shops’ in East London where the poorest could get short or medium term loans at very high interest by pledging their possessions as security. The magistracy were aware of it and two justices in particular, Mr Beard and Mr Abbott, condemned the practice and assured the public that they would be prepared to inflict the maximum penalty of £50 on offenders.

It strikes me that leaving shops were operating very much like the high interest pay day loan companies like Wonga, which today offer (or used to offer in Wonga’s case) much needed cash but at huge cost in terms of interest. These companies profit from the very poorest in society and the same practice, albeit a less sophisticated version, was taking place in the 1860s.

Plus câ change, eh?

[from The Standard, Monday, September 22, 1862]

‘The knife at work again’ screams the ‘headline’ in the Chronicle

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David Connor was a drunk. And when he was in his cups he was extremely violent. Plenty of people would testify to that fact, including the police to whom he was a known offender.

In February 1857 he was up before Mr Tyrwhitt at Clerkenwell Police court on charge of stabbing James Roberts. Both men were costermongers – street traders who had a reputation for bad language, heavy drinking, and fighting. When they rolled up their sleeves and traded blows in a ‘fair fight’ no one really minded but when knives were involved the state intervened.

Roberts had entered the Coffee House pub on Chapel Street in Somers Town at about 8 o’clock at night. Connor – a ‘rough, dirty looking fellow; – was already much the worse for drink. The pair argued and Roberts left. He made his way to another pub, the Victoria, but Connor followed him and the two men quarrelled again.

This time they came to blows and Connor pulled out a knife and stabbed the other coster in the arm. As Roberts bled and sought medical help, Connor scarpered before the police could catch him. Enquiries were made however and the culprit was picked up and taken into custody. The police were adamant that Connor was guilty because he was known to be aggressive and ‘committed assaults on nearly every person he fell in with’.

Connor pleaded for leniency and said he was sorry, it would;t have happened if he hadn’t have been drinking. He asked the magistrate to deal with him there and then – knowing he would get a lesser sentence at the Police Court. Mr Tyrwhitt asked after Roberts’ health and was told that his injuries were not yet clear, and it was too soon for him to appear in court to give his evidence. He doesn’t seem to have been in mortal danger but under the circumstances it was appropriate to remand Connor in custody to see what charge he would eventually face.

The paper’s headline – the knife at work again – suggests a contemporary concern with mindless violence in the late 1850s. There was a growing concern about a criminal class and outbreaks of garrotting panics in the 1850s and 1860s fuelled this. I suspect Connor would have faced  a trial at the Sessions later that month and a faulty lengthy prison spell if he was convicted. Violence that involved knives was not considered very ‘British’ and he may well have paid the price for that.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, February 23, 1857]

The perils of being a ‘known thief’

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Steam boats at Old Swan Pier, near London Bridge

After 1869 there was a change to the law. This was one of the long term consequences of the moral panic surrounding ‘garrotting’ (a form of violent street robbery) that occurred in London in 1862. The Habitual Offenders Act (1869) saw the creation of a register of prisoners who had been convicted. This included taking details of their physical features and photographing them. In 1871 the act was modified so that it was now limited to all those sentenced to a month or more in prison. The registers are held by the National Archives at Kew and and will be a part of a new historical online database, the Digital Panopticon.

Before that the court had no official record of previous offenders although there were plenty of instances where a person’s criminal record dogged them through the justice system. From the 1750s the Bow Street police office, run by Sir John Fielding (the ‘blind beak’) had attempted to create its own database of London’s criminals. Their early efforts were destroyed by fire in the Gordon Riots of 1780, and subsequent records were lost to history when the office moved to a new building in the late 1800s.

Many constables, watchmen, gaolers, and magistrates could however identify persons who had appeared on more than one occasion but this was limited by memory and geography. If, for example, a defendant was brought up before the magistrate at Bow Street and convicted and sentenced to, say, a month in the house of correction, on release he would ‘disappear’. If he was arrested and brought before the justice at Worship Street (in the East End) then he may have been unknown to them.

It was then, as it is now, the case that repeat or persistent offenders were likely to receive a stiffer sentence, or at least not get the benefit of the doubt when it came to conviction. So we can see the benefits to the authorities of a systematic system of identifying known criminals. By contrast we can also see why it was in the interests of thieves to try to pretend they were first offenders by denying previous convictions (that might be hard to prove) or by using alias, which many did.

The John Cox that appeared at the Mansion House Police Court in June 1866 was described in the papers as ‘a well known thief’. He was brought up on a charge of robbing a young lady named Elizabeth Gallagher, on Old Swan Pier as she waited for a steam boat by London Bridge.

He was seen ‘dipping’ her pocket by an officer named Henwick, who may have been City policeman or more likely someone working for the steam ship company. Henwick acted quickly and arrested Cox before he could make his escape, and told him there was no use him denying what he’d done.

In the Mansion House court Cox’s luck went from bad to worse as the gaoler of Coldbath Fields prison rose to give evidence. He told the presiding magistrate, Alderman Gabriel, that he knew the prisoner of old. Cox had served time in the prison for being a rogue and a vagabond and had also been sentenced to three years penal servitude at the Middlesex Sessions.

As a result, instead of dealing with him summarily by awarding a short prison sentence, the alderman fully committed Cox for trial. As he was a taken down Cox turned his anger on the gaoler, warning that he ‘would be “down on him” [at] the first opportunity’, and was led away muttering curses to the cells.

Cox was clearly guilty of the crime but the consequences of being identified as a repeat offender: as someone who had not learned his lesson previously, was severe. On 9 July 1866 he pleaded guilty to picking the pocket of Elizabeth Gallagher and was sent to prison for seven years.

Cox was listed at 23 years of age in 1866. In 1874 another man, also named John Cox (aged 35) was convicted at the Bailey of housebreaking. Listed as a previously convicted felon he was sent down for ten years. Was this the same John Cox? There is a slight difference in age (3-4 years) but it is not impossible. Cox would have been out of gaol by 1874 and would have found it very hard to gain legitimate paid employment. He may also have made acquaintances inside that would have helped him ‘progress’ from the smaller crime of picking pockets to the more serious one of breaking into someone’s home or business.

There is an alternative outcome however. In 1879 a John Cox was convicted with another man, William Price, of stealing 20 ‘dead soles’. The pair pleaded guilty and Cox was shown to have been convicted in 1870 and a further five charges were heard and proved against him. He was sentenced to 8 years.

I suspect one of these cases (but not both) was our man. From 1869 or 1871 onwards we could be clearer if we checked the Register created in the wake of the garrotting panic. That is an exercise for another day but is the sort of exercise the Digital Panopticon project was created to make possible, the tracing of criminal ‘careers’ and lives of those sentenced at London’s Central Criminal court.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 23, 1866]

Footnote: yesterday I received my copy of a new volume about the history of crime. A Companion to the History of Crime and Criminal Justice (edited by Jo Turner, Paul taylor, Sharon Morley and Karen Corteen) is published by the Polity Press and is full of short articles about criminal justice history across the 18th and 19th centuries. It features a short entry by your truly (on the Whitechapel Murders of 1888) and is an excellent companion to my own text book covering the period from 1660-1914

A Garroting in Victorian Islington

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In 1862 a series of attacks in London (starting with one on Hugh Pilkington MP ) by robbers who grabbed their victims from behind and throttled them, initiated a wave of reports of similar incidents up and down the country. Before long Britain was in the grip of a ‘moral panic’ and the police and courts clamped down on anyone they suspected of being a ‘garrotter’.

The key suspects were the so-called ‘criminal class’ and in particular those criminals that had been released earlier from imprisonment on license. These were known as ‘ticket-of-leave’ men and I’ve written about them before on this blog.

The 1862 panic soon faded from the attention of the public as the press moved on to new stories but the term lingered. Thereafter street robberies with violence were occasionally referred to as ‘garrotings’ as this example from 1867 shows.

James Perring, an Islington resident, was riding in his cart on Fann Street when a young man stopped his vehicle. Mr. Perring may have been elderly, the report is not clear, but he was certainly not able-bodied. He had suffered a recent wound in his leg and was forced to walk with a crutch for support.

The person that stopped his cart, later identified as 19 year-old William Brown, (a ‘stout looking fellow’), was not alone, he had three companions. Regardless of this Mr. Perring asked him to let go of his horse ‘or he would be kicked’.

As he said this one of the other men leaped into the cart and grabbed him around the throat, pulling him over. Perring suffered badly from this attack and the wound in his leg was opened up causing him to lose a lot of blood.

Brown saw this and pressed his advantage, kicking the cart owner in the knee when he tried to grab at him. As he shouted for help the four men or boys all ran away. Mr. Perring checked his pockets and found he had lost five sovereign coins (quite a bit of money for the 1860s). The robber had also dropped his cap which Perring later found it in his cart.

The police soon arrived and started to search for the gang but only managed to discover Brown. He had run into a lodging house, crept upstairs into a room and had thrown ‘himself on a bed, pretending to be asleep’. The landlord said he had never seen him before and the police took him away protesting his innocence.

Brown appeared at Clerkenwell Police Court in late January 1867 charged with felonious assault. He wasn’t charged with the robbery because fortunately for him and Mr Perring the sovereigns were found when a thorough search of the cart was made.

Probably because of this or because none of the other protagonists could be found this case never made it to the Old Bailey. It may have been an attempted robbery or simply antisocial behaviour by a group of young ‘hooligans’ (although that term wasn’t coined until the 1890s). Either way it was very unpleasant for  James Perring and evidence that the notion of the ‘garroter’ was still very much in the public domain five years after the panic had subsided.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, January 26, 1867]

The Lord mayor drops into the Police Courts to discuss the problem of prison reform

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Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia) as it is today

Today’s tale from the Police Courts is less of a particular crime and more a report of how contemporaries felt about the criminal justice system of the late 1830s. In 1839 the Metropolitan Police had been in existence for a decade, the transportation of felons to Australia was in full flood and London’s first ‘national’ prison (Millbank on the Thames) had been open for 20 years. After the turbulent years of the late teens and 1820s Britain was moving towards stability and peace but the threat of political unrest had not entirely gone away, as Chartism (c.1836-48) showed.

The problem of crime was ever present of course, because each successive generation tends to believe that life was less criminal in the previous one and any outbreak of criminality (like the ‘garrotting’ panics of the 1850s and 60s, or the ‘hooligan’ panic of the 1890s) had reporters and correspondents to the newspapers rushing to their quills to complain about the state of law and order.

In December 1839  appeared at the Guildhall Police Court and discussed the state of crime with the sitting magistrate, Alderman White. Sir Peter had an interest in law and order, having served as Lord Mayor (the City’s chief magistrate in 1832) and had written two books on prison reform.

He informed Alderman White that he had seen the reports of the prisons of the metropolis  and shared its contents. These revealed that no less than 58 ‘desperate destitute persons’ were being ‘let loose to prey upon the public from the several prisons of the metropolis’ every morning.

The debate about what to do with criminals had raged in the first decades of the nineteenth century as Robert Peel’s reform of the justice system removed capital punishment from all property crimes meaning that hanging was now reserved for murderers and (until 1842) rapists. The state still transported thousands to Australia but increasingly it was the prison (the penitentiary prison, with an emphasis on reform) that provided the backbone of the penal system.Within prisons there was also a highly contested debate about how to treat convicts with some advocating a ‘silent’ system (where inmates could mingle but not talk) and others opting for the more draconian ‘separate’ system which was in effect, solitary confinement.

Sir Peter was not a fan of the modern penitentiary prison; he said that he had read a study of the penitentiary at Philadelphia (a model of the American penal system) which showed its ineffectiveness.

He told the magistrate that ‘so far from the Penitentiary at Philadelphia reforming and making useful citizens of thieves, it breaks down their bodies as well as their minds. He saw a number of prisoners who had been confined for two years, and he never before beheld such a collection of emaciated, miserable looking objects, with lack-lustre eyes. Such an approach’ he argued, ‘did men no good’.

Alderman White commented that prison reform was one of those topics that everyone seemed to have an opinion about but no one really understood; it needed much more research in his opinion. For me this is a comment that could easily be applied in the 21st century. Too much of our penal policy seems to be based on the reactions of the government of the day to public opinion expressed in the tabloid press and not on a scientific understanding of the problem.

Sir Peter ended his visit to the court by reading the report of releases from the London prisons. This showed that in the past 49 weeks 16,940 persons had been discharged from institutions in the capital (at an average  rate of 345 a week). This report did not include Millbank, Newgate, or the New Prison at Clerkenwell however; if it had I think the numbers would have been considerably higher.

This shows then that the numbers being related were in the public domain (I wonder if they are so prominent today) and so Londoners could see the effect of the move away from capital punishment and transportation on the streets. This was to become much more pronounced in the 1850s as transportation to Australia slowed and then stoped in the next decade. Thereafter, the prison, however, ineffectual it might have been, was the only form of punishment available until the experiments with probation in the early Edwardian period.

 

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, December 18, 1839]

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

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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.