Seventeenth century law and order

Hertfordshire Mercury, 15th May 1931


The increase in crime in later years has called in question the proficiency of the Police Force , and certain inside alterations made have induced surmises that changes as radical as those brought about by Sir Robert Peel’s Act in 1829 will be inaugurated throughout the country.

That the English Police are as efficient and respected as any throughout the world will not be gainsaid. But this happy state of affairs did not obtain until Peel’s strong intervention, and , from a perusal of county records at the latter end of the eighteenth century, it is evident that the policing of  the county was in a sad state .

Until the close of the eighteenth century a desultory system was in practice in Hertfordshire as elsewhere , whereby in the rural districts and towns High Constables and Parish Constables , acting under the directions of local Justices Of The Peace, appointed officers to ensure order .

Many were either not paid at all or paid very badly , with the result that the provisions of the law were neglected, and a corrupt and inefficient policing system ensued.

The reformation of the system introduced Peel’s police ,who supplanted the Bow Street runners and High Constables. Hostility against them was intense, often venting itself in personal violence , but it has been lived down, and the English police force is respected by all classes .

In 1889, High Constables were finally abolished . How desultory the Parish Constables before that time were chosen is illustrated by the following petitions ; taken from Hertford County records of the year 1691 ; ”  John Waller , of Ware, yeoman, was nominated by Sir Thomas Byde , Lord of the Manor , and by the inhabitants there as Constable for the ensuing year. He now prays to be excused from serving by reason he is not an householder in the said parish, but only a sojourner there. ” ” Similar petitions by Richard Faddock , also chosen as a Constable of  Ware , showing he is a very poor and illiterate person and a daily labourer .” Another “prays to be excused from serving because he is very old and incapable of executing the office , and asks that Edward Mayling may be sworn in his stead . Order made to that effect . “

Preserving law and order in those days was evidently not regarded as a skilled or full-time occupation.

THE TRIBULATIONS OF CONSTABLES ,  when they were finally appointed, were many and varied . There was, for instance, the case of one Elizabeth , wife of John Miller,of Hoddesdon, who rescued Elizabeth Toogood ,spinster, from the custody of the Constable, and harboured her in her house . Then there was Matthew King , of Barley , labourer, who refused to pay 2d. lawfully demanded of him by the Constable of Barkway, while ” Mead Gardiner, of Ware, yeoman, refused to pay Thomas Spencer , the present Constable , divers sums of money which remained in his hands . “

The extraordinary freedom of action vouchsafed to Parish Constables is shown by the order made by Justices that a Constable of Wheathampsted should make a rate upon the inhabitants of the village so as to reimburse him the money which he laid out in his office.

Chief Constables , on the other hand , fared ill if the following two records are to be taken as general examples : ” John Finch, of Waterford , bound over for his contempt in refusing to be appointed Chief Constable for the Hundred of Cashio.” ” Thomas Smart and Josias Bunn, late Chief Constables for the Hundred of Dacorum , were appointed to pay Mr Smith, of Wheathampsted , 30 shillings, and Henry Ball ,of Coleshall, 20 shillings , money levied on them for Sir John Hulyes’   Robbery . “

That the practice of informing was not at all considered as derogatory is shown by several recorded cases in which a part of the fines paid by persons convicted on the testimony of informers was paid as a fee to the latter . Gay’s ” Beggar’s Opera ” has made us familiar with the man who made informing a profession in life , and his sketch is borne out by several cases .

In one, a Bishop’s Stortford man was convicted on the oath of an informer of ” coursing a fallow deer , ” and was fined £20 . Half of the fine was given to the informer . In another case a petition was presented to the Justices by one John Pricklove , for a third part of the penalty belonging to him as informer against a carter . It appeared later that the Constables of Hatfield had neglected to levy the money , and they were called on to answer .

It is surprising to learn that when a robbery was committed the people of the district were called upon to make good the loss. The effect was probably to make the thief as unpopular among commoners as among propertied classes . An instance is given in the following presentment : ” Whereas a robbery was lately committed in the Hundred of Braughing upon Andrew Mason, and an action was brought against the Hundred for recovery , to which action Thomas Wright and Henry Patten appeared in defence and expended £9 8s. 0d., it is now ordered that a rate be raised for repayment of the said sum . ”  And again in the  following ” Order that £74  9s. be raised in the Hundred of Broadwater for a robbery committed upon William Lilley in the Hundred , and also £8 10s. 0d. due to the Attorney for his defence of the inhabitants . “

The desultoriness of the policing was only equalled by THE LAXITY OF THE GAOLING . It was a common occurence for a criminal to escape from prison , and for this , the gaoler was fined . On October 6 ,  1684 , we read , the County Gaoler complained to the court that the Hertford Gaol was very much out of repair , that several prisoners has escaped , and that if speedy measures were not adopted he could not keep the prisoners there with safety . An order was made that some of the Justices , ” soe soone as their leisures will permitte , ” should view the defects and enquire from workman the charges for repairing them . One gaoler was actually fined £10 for his “contempt ” in allowing prisoners to escape .

Some curious duties befell the gaoler in that period . One duty was apparently to mind children , for we find the churchwardens of Weston were ordered to pay him all monies in arrears to him for keeping the child of Annie Bateson .

More gruesome , however , were some of his tasks . What would a gaoler say today if he had to whip a woman convicted of robbery ?  Such was the order given by Justices in respect of a Hertfordshire woman , who was to ” be conveyed to the common whipping post in Hertford , and there to be well whipped , between the hours of nine and twelve , and then to be discharged”

Other orders to the county gaoler comprised the punishment of a Hertford labourer convicted of stealing fowls , ” to be whipped till his body be bloody ; ” and , in respect of one convicted of petty larceny, ” to be conveyed to Ware and well whipped at the end of a cart , from the Crown Inn through the town to the great river there . “

It comes as a strange contrast to learn that the gaoler was ordered to release one Henry Joyce , who had made a violent assault upon his mother , putting out one of her eyes . The reason was that ” the Court was informed he is a poor lunatic person , and that nobody is appearing to prosecute him . ” This was in 1692 , and it was to take many years before the Lunacy Laws were to provide for the proper control of mad persons . It was early in the nineteenth century , when the sister of Charles Lamb stabbed and killed her mother in a fit of madness . The law then allowed her to remain under the roof and care of her illustrious brother.

Another curious custom must have been  in vogue among jailers at that time , for it became necessary for Justices to issue an order that the gaoler of the County should not permit any persons committed to gaol to go out or to follow any of  their professions , except as such as might be exercised by them in the gaol without resorting to the houses of any employer .











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