Although on occasion the Bow Street Runners, then London law enforcement officers, traveled to the country where one of their criminal cases could take them, areas of the countryside were controlled by magistrates. These, in turn, appointed police officers, who imprisoned and tied criminals to said magistrates. Justices of the peace dealt with petty crimes at Petty Sessions. The most serious cases were carried out four times a year in the quarterly sessions. The most serious cases were referred by the Quarter Sessions to the acting judges to be heard at the Assizes.
The magistrates were appointed by the Crown and came from the landed aristocracy, the rural aristocracy, and the Anglican clergy, who were often associated with noble houses.
According to Roger Swift, who wrote about the Judiciary in 19th century England (see the full title of the Summary below), the country’s magistrates wielded considerable power. Many cities had still been incorporated, so these and the country were the jurisdiction of the magistrate. “The magistracy exercised a wide range of administrative responsibilities that included the licensing of taverns, the inspection of prisons and madhouses, the superintendency of roads, public buildings and charitable institutions, and the application of laws against loitering … adjudicated in dispute resolution … “(p. 75)
Presumably these men took care of justice, but the poor suffered greatly and the partial magistrates had the children transported to Australia for stealing their sick mothers’ bread. Poaching, carried out to feed starving families whose lands had been fenced off by their wealthy neighbors, was severely punished. Transportation and hanging were common. Although many noble landowners employed the poor on their estates, many of the injustices continued until reforms were introduced during the Victorian period.
Soldiers returning from the peninsular wars, who lacked a family and could pay for tickets to the country, unable to find employment, were caught in poaching. The Sabbath breaking was frowned upon, so drinkers and gamblers caught in this way were placed in stocks in the public “green” for one and all to see. The abuses occurred in areas of northern England, for example in mining, where workers were paid with food or goods rather than money until well into Victorian times.
Compared to London, the dangers in the country were less. Despite this, some biased magistrates still dealt with loitering with transportation. Usually this punishment was seven years, but in the case of the children, the mothers’ hearts were shattered, because if their children survived the boat trip, they would never be seen again. The work between the Botany Bay gangs was said to be tough. Only the strong survived and few returned to England.
The world of the Regency of England for the poor, the underprivileged and the intruders, was truly a dangerous place. My heroes and heroines had a lot to face in their fight against oppression.
Resume: English urban magistracy and the administration of justice in the early 19th century: Wolverhampton 1815-1860. By Roger Swift, Chester College of Higher Education
From: RE Swift. ‘Crime, law and order in two English cities in the early 19th century: the Exeter and Wolverhampton experience, 1815-56’ (University of Birmingham doctoral thesis. 1981), 322-51.
Published in: Midland history, the leading magazine covering the history of the English Midlands.