Judicial overkill….

You may remember a few weeks ago I posted about a period of hardship in Devon resulting in a spate of thefts of food and fuel, in particular, and that I noted that the justices of the peace were somewhat….uncompromising in their approach to sentencing the various persons convicted. Well, just to put the sham of eighteenth century ‘justice’ into context rather neatly, here’s the case of Mary Howe of Heavitree, spinster. Mary Howe fell foul of the law by milking some cows in a field at Heavitree then belonging to George Tarr, a place then known as the Seven Acres. She ‘feloniously’ milked the cows, which also belonged to Mr Tarr, taking several quarts of milk, of the value of (wait for it!) five pence. Her fate? As with most of those convicted of petty thefts at that particular sessions, she was transported to the colonies. Yes, that’s right. For taking goods worth five pence.

Because I have an insatiable curiosity, (and, happily, because it’s also my job!) I thought I’d compare Mary Howe’s fate to those of the men and women charged with stealing milk at the Midsummer sessions a year later, in 1741. Of those found guilty, all were sentenced to be whipped and discharged. As I noted in my post the other week it did seem as though the justices had been trying to make a point with their sentencing at the Midsummer 1740 sessions; confronted with a crime wave, the knee-jerk reaction was to come down hard on those found guilty. But this total inconsistency in policy between identical crimes illustrates just how senseless eighteenth-century judicial policy was, in my opinion. Had Mary Howe committed her crime a year later, on the evidence it seems that she’d most likely have been treated like anybody else and been whipped and then discharged.

But she committed her offence at the height of an epidemic of thefts, as people struggled to survive a brutal winter. This was a winter so severe, incidentally, that there was frost until July, people camped in tents on the Thames, and birds froze to death in the air; in London throughout January and February, the temperature never rose above freezing, according to Met Office pre-instrumental meteorology records. (Thanks to my colleagues in the Met Office for providing that information, by the way!). For Mary Howe, an identical crime, a theft of goods of the value of five pence, meant transportation. Not only was this quite patently a ludicrous over-reaction, demonstrative of the very worst of eighteenth century judicial excesses, but it also made very little sense from the point of view of costs to the court, and ultimately to the people of Devon. Put it this way, the cost simply of having Mary Howe’s case heard by the court vastly exceeded the sum of five pence, let alone the cost of transporting her half way around the world, providing for her en-route and ensuring that she were able to complete her sentence. It seems an obscenely petty crime to merit such a draconian response.


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