The Dangerous World of Regency England

The Dangerous World of Regency England

Although on occasion the Bow Street Runners, the then law enforcers of London, traveled into the country where one of their criminal cases might lead them, the country areas were policed by magistrates. These in turn appointed constables, who jailed and bound criminals over to said magistrates. Justices of the Peace dealt with minor offences at the Petty Sessions. More severe cases were held four times a year at the Quarter Sessions. The most severe cases were referred by the Quarter Sessions to the sitting judges to hear at the Assizes.

The Magistrates were appointed by the Crown and drawn from the landowning aristocracy, the country gentry, and the Anglican clergy, who were often related to noble houses.

According to Roger Swift, who wrote about the Magistracy in Nineteenth century England, (see below for full title of Abstract), the country magistrates wielded considerable power. Many towns were as yet incorporated, so these and the country were the province of the magistrate. “The magistracy exercised a wide range of administrative responsibilities which included the licensing of alehouses, the inspection of prisons and lunatic asylums, the superintendence of roads, public buildings and charitable institutions, and the application of laws against vagrancy…(and they) adjudicated in the settlement of disputes….” (p.75)

These men presumably saw to justice, but the poor suffered greatly and biased magistrates had children transported to Australia for stealing bread for their sick mothers. Poaching, carried on to feed starving families whose land had been enclosed by their wealthy neighbors, was severely punished. Transportation and hanging were common. Although many landowners of the nobility employed the poor on their estates, much of the injustices continued until reforms came in during the Victorian period. 

Returning soldiers from the Peninsular wars, who lacked family, and could afford fares to the country, unable to find employment, were caught up in poaching. Sabbath breaking was frowned upon, so that drinkers and gamblers caught thus were placed in stocks on the public ‘green’ for one and all to see. Abuses occurred in the northern areas of England, for example mining, where workers were paid by food or goods rather than money well into the Victorian period.

Compared to London, the dangers in the country were less. Despite this, some biased magistrates still treated vagrancy with transportation. Usually this punishment was for seven years, but in the case of children, mothers’ hearts were torn apart–for if their children survived the journey by ship, they were never seen again. It was said that the work amongst the gangs of Botany Bay was hard. Only the strong survived, and few made it back to England.

The Regency world of England for the poor, disadvantaged, and trespassers, was truly a dangerous place. My heros and heroines had much to contend with in their fight against oppression.

Abstract: The English Urban Magistracy and the Administration of Justice During the Early Nineteenth Century: Wolverhampton 1815-1860. By Roger Swift, Chester College of Higher Education

From: R. E. Swift. ‘Crime, Law and Order in Two English Towns during the Early Nineteenth Century: the experience of Exeter and Wolverhampton, 1815-56’ (University of Birmingham Ph.D. Thesis. 1981), 322-51.

Published in: Midland History, the principal Journal covering the History of the English Midlands.