Crime and punishment in south Shropshire, 1786-1898

hanging at derby

This paper was presented at the biennial conference of the journal, Midland History, at the University of Birmingham on 7 November 2015.  The paper is a by-product of research into the lived experience of the poor of the parishes that made up the Cleobury Mortimer Poor Law Union in south Shropshire and covers fourteen of those (three of the parishes were in Worcestershire and outside the scope of the paper).

In the hundred or so years covered by the paper, all victim and property based crimes were dealt with by the assize or quarter sessions, except poaching unless it was at night and armed.  Quarter sessions and assizes for Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Church Stretton, Much Wenlock and Bridgnorth were held in those places and had their own records.  Cleobury Mortimer and the surrounding parishes were dealt with by the Shropshire sessions and assizes in Shrewsbury.   Printed calendars of prisoners are held in Shrewsbury Archives and the years 1786 – 1898 were analysed (these cover the period of my main research, plus a few years extra) .  Whilst examining the calendars for evidence of women being imprisoned for bearing illegitimate children which became chargeable to the parish, it quickly became obvious that there were stories to tell and the types of crimes, though varied, fell into patterns – but on the other hand there was a wide variation in sentencing.

Before the death sentence was made discretionary in 1823 (except for murder and treason), well over 200 offences were punishable by death: many of those were offences against property.  Although not as many were hanged as might be imagined, transportation to a penal colony was common and many crimes resulted in hard labour and whipping.  There was a wide variations in sentencing but less so in offences.  Men, women and children were all treated harshly.  Repeat offences were not uncommon: nor was joint enterprise by family members.  This paper highlights some interesting findings along with an analysis of crime and punishment in the area.

It appeared that people were stealing food and clothes due to want, but this turns out not to be the case.  Despite very harsh sentences in the first half of the period, many still reoffended and suffered the consequences.  Women generally fared better than men, unless they were found or pleaded guilty.  Transportation and the death sentence were handed down in over twelve percent of cases, though actual execution was rare.  And children (15 and under) accounted for less than five percent of the total, but with two thirds of those being found guilty and serving up to six months in prison with whipping as an extra punishment.

But mostly, the calendars paint a very rich picture of life in Cleobury Mortimer and the surrounding parishes.  The topic deserves much more detailed research and has potential to uncover a number of pieces of the jigsaw of life in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This paper is being published in the forthcoming Cleobury Chronicles, vol. 12, published by the Cleobury Mortimer and District History Society.

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