Justice in the Regency period: Crime didn’t always come to court.

old_bailey_regencyIn the early nineteenth century, people who committed crimes were not always made to answer for them in a court of law. In fact, the majority of criminals did not come before the bench at all.

Even serious crimes like rape and kidnap did not usually end in a court case, unless it was unavoidable. The victims of such crimes would be considered tainted by them and ruined, and many preferred to deal with it privately.thebankruptviscount (2)

In “The Bankrupt Viscount”, Ella is stalked and attacked. She and Will set out to deal with it themselves. Similarly, in “Incognito”, when Grace is threatened because of her true identity, Luke helps her to deal with it.

There were many other reasons for avoiding court mandated justice in Regency times. For one thing, justice was prohibitively expensive, and most people could not afford it.

Then, to bring a perpetrator to justice, the victim would often be obliged to investigate and prosecute the case themselves. Although each parish was obliged to provide two constables, these people were not paid for the job, which they did in their spare time. They were drawn from the local population and served in the post for one year. They were often reluctant to do the work, even paying others to take their shifts for them. The constables might also know the perpetrator and, either through fear or friendship, be unwilling to find evidence to incriminate him or her.

INCOGNITOMost places also had night watchmen, or Charleys. Again, they were unpaid. They did detect crimes and arrest criminals as well as locking up rowdy drunks and escorting home less troublesome ones, and crying the time through the streets. However, they were usually elderly, decrepit men and wholly ineffective.

From 1751, there were the Bow Street Runners, also known as Robin Redbreasts because they wore red waistcoats. These men were armed, but they were really little more than bounty hunters, rather than detectives.

It wasn’t until 1828 that there was a paid police force in England.

Another reason that many crimes were not tried was the fact that there was no guarantee that justice would be meted out. All but the most serious cases were brought before local magistrates, who worked without a jury. They were unpaid, and drawn from the ranks of the local wealthy. They also had no training. Many were easily corrupted.judge

They often knew the parties before them and, like most of us, made judgments based on personal likes and dislikes, prejudice and even snobbery. They were also less than keen to perform their duties; in my latest book in the Hadlow series, Sir Percival Millston, mutters that had he realised there was so much work involved, he never would have become a magistrate.

The magistrates were not always consistent in their sentencing. For instance, a local landowner who’s been losing game to poachers was more likely to see a villain standing before him, rather than a man with a starving family. He’d be more likely to make an example of him as a deterrent, whereas another magistrate might be lenient on him, because of sympathy for his circumstances, or because he didn’t see the crime as serious, or simply because he liked the fellow!

Another reason for not going to court was that, for the upper echelons of society, it meant scandal, even ridicule. Instead, they dealt with it themselves. Advertisements would appear, saying something had been lost and offering a reward for its safe return. Lost was a euphemism for stolen, and it was often the thief who “found” it and collected the reward. The rightful owner was pragmatic, glad to have the valuable back, and his only action afterwards would be to make it more secure in future.

 

 

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About Caitlyn Callery

I have been a writer all my life. As well as Regency Romances, which I write as Caitlyn Callery, I also write stage plays, sketches and screenplays under the name Hilary Mackelden. I also have a weekly column in the Kent and Sussex Courier, and do publicity and PR for the charity, World In Need. I live in Sussex and love, (in alphabetical order) Ashdown Forest, my family, Jesus, reading and the sea.
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3 Responses to Justice in the Regency period: Crime didn’t always come to court.

  1. Rick Ellrod says:

    Interesting — especially for a lawyer.

    Puts me in mind of Heyer’s *The Unknown Ajax* — where the insistence on keeping a family scandal out of the courts is a major driver at the denouement.

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