Crime in the Good Old Days
Updated: Jul 3, 2022
The commonplace practise of urban policing didn't exist in Regency England. It's understood that the general populace opposed an organised police force until the 1800s. The great metropolis of London entertained such ideas for the first time in 1822 (the Regency era having officially drawn to a close with the Regent's coronation in 1820) and it wasn't until 1829 that a properly organised police force took shape in the capital. Given this, it stands to reason that Regency Britishers saw crime rather differently from the way we view it today.
A Capital Theft:
Property, not life, was sacrosanct in Regency England. Theft of any kind of item was considered a major crime. Perpetrators were often hanged. The value of the stolen item didn't really matter - thousands of pounds, a lady's jewelled comb, or a live chicken were all considered the same crime. The hanging sentence was usually the same.
Some purloined items for which people were hanged during the Regency era include: a loaf of bread, a haberdasher's ribbon card, and wares from a Mayfair salon. If the thief was lucky their sentence was commuted to 'transportation for life'. As an Australian, I'm fully aware this meant a trip to my own shores! For those who don't know, Australia was settled by the British as a penal colony in 1788, to the great detriment of first nations' peoples.
Kidnapping a Lady:
While stealing was a capital crime, kidnapping a child wasn't even considered worthy of prosecution or pursuit. There was one exception - if the kidnap victim was an heiress of any kind. Then the hue and cry flew wide. If caught, the kidnapper would certainly be hanged - but only because a well-dowried girl was, again, the property of her family. Legally, this was her value. It had nothing to do with any crime against her person.
What of elopements? I'm glad you asked! The Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753 made it illegal for couples below the age of majority (ie, 21 years), to marry without parental consent - in England. Some of you may know that a thriving trade in hasty weddings was conducted over the border in Scotland. Two of my own characters choose this path in Always a Princess, but Gretna Green deserves a post all its own.
The English courts remained divided on whether the Scottish marriages were legally valid in England. Most eloping couples held another ceremony on their return to England. The parents of the couple invariably allowed this, as it was assumed the bride was deflowered by this time. The girl's family had to salvage what reputation they could.
It was possible for the fathers of 'debauched daughters' to pursue ardent sons-in-law through the courts. Given the scandal and the expense, not many undertook this redress but when brought, the father usually won. Remember, the daughter was his property until she wed another man (I shudder). This was considered a civil matter, not a criminal one. In short, kidnapping a woman wasn't a crime if the perpetrator bedded and/or married her fast enough (and people say romance is dead?)
Murder Most Foul:
Attempted murder was seen as a mere misdemenour until 1803. However murder itself, once proved, generally resulted in a capital sentence. Jerry Abershawe was one of the last highwaymen (so both a thief and a murderer), when he was finally apprehended in 1795 after shooting the men sent to apprehend him. A career criminal, he had several safe houses and eluded capture for over a decade.
When the authorities finally caught up with this killer, he was tried, convicted, and hanged before a crowd of spectators on Kennington Common. His corpse was hoisted on a gibbet overlooking the London Road as a solemn warning to others that crime does not pay. He was twenty-two.