Defendants’ voices and silences in the Old Bailey courtroom, 1781-1880

This is a version of the paper I gave at the Digital Panopticon launch conference at Liverpool in September 2017.

In the interests of fostering reproducible research in the humanities, I’ve put all the data and R code underlying this paper online on Github – details of where to find them are at the end.

Defendant speech and verdicts in the Old Bailey

Defendants’ voices are at the heart of the Digital Panopticon Voices of Authority research theme I’ve been working on with Tim Hitchcock. We know that defendants were speaking less in Old Bailey Online trials as the 19th century went on; we’ve tended to put this in the context of growing bureaucratisation and the rise of plea bargaining.

I want to think about it slightly differently in this paper though. The graph above compares conviction/acquittal for defendants who spoke and those who remained silent, in trials containing direct speech between 1781 and 1880. It suggests that for defendants themselves, their voices were a liability. This won’t surprise those who’ve read historians’ depiction of the plight that defendants found themselves in 18th-century courtrooms without defence lawyers, in the “Accused Speaks” model of the criminal trial (eg Langbein, Beattie).

But this isn’t a story of bureaucrats silencing defendants (or lawyers riding in to the rescue). I want to suggest that, once defendants had alternatives to speaking for themselves (ie, representation by lawyers and/or plea bargaining), they made the choice to fall silent because it was often in their best interests.

About the “Old Bailey Voices” Data

  • Brings together Old Bailey Online and Old Bailey Corpus (with some additional tagging)
  • Combines linguistic tagging (direct speech, speaker roles) and structured trials tagging (including verdicts and sentences)
  • Single defendant trials only, 1781-1880
  • 20700 trials in 227 OBO sessions
  • 15850 of the trials contain first-person speech tagged by OBC

The Old Bailey Corpus, created by Magnus Huber, enhanced a large sample of the OBP 1720-1913 for linguistic analysis, including tagging of direct speech and tagging about speakers. [In total 407 Proceedings ca. 14 million spoken words, ca. 750,000 spoken words/decade.]

Trials with multiple defendants have been excluded from the dataset because of the added complexity of matching them to utterances (and they aren’t always individually named). Trial outcomes have also been simplified; if there are multiple verdicts or sentences only the most “serious” is retained. [Of course this begs the question of whether the dynamics and outcomes of multi-defendant trials might be different…]

Include only trials ending in guilty/not guilty verdicts, omits a handful of ‘special verdicts’ etc.

Caveat!

Working assumption is that nearly all silent defendants do have a lawyer and the majority of defendants who speak, don’t.

Sometimes, especially in early decades, defendants had a lawyer and also spoke. Unfortunately, the OBC tagging doesn’t distinguish between prosecution and defence lawyers, and not all lawyer speech was actually reported.

But, more seriously, is it safe to assume that ‘silent’ defendants were really silent? Occasionally defendant speech was actually censored in the Proceedings (in trials where other speech was reported), eg a man on trial for seditious libel in 1822 whose defence “was of such a nature as to shock the ears of every person present, and is of course unfit for publication”. But that was a very unusual, political, case. (See Google Books, Trial of Humphrey Boyle)

[However, it was suggested in questions after the presentation that maybe the issue isn’t so much total censorship as in the case above, but that the words of convicted defendants might be more likely to be partially censored, which would problematise analyses that centre on extent and content of their words. This could be a particular problem in 1780s and 1790s; maybe less so later on.]

So work to be done here – eg, look at trials with alternative reports specifically to consider defendants’ words.

Distribution of trials by decade 1781-1880

Start with some broad context.

The number of cases peaked during the 1840s and dramatically fell in the 1850s. (Following the Criminal Justice Act 1855, many simple larceny cases were transferred to magistrates’ courts.)

Percentage of trials containing speech, annually

Percentage climbs from 1780s (in 1778 Proceedings became near-official record of court), peaks early 19th c and then after major criminal justice reforms of late 1820s swept away most of the Bloody Code, shown by red line, substantial fall in proportion of trials containing speech.

This was primarily due to increase in guilty pleas, which were previously rare. After the reforms, 2/3 of trials without speech are guilty pleas.

Conviction rates annually, including guilty pleas

(Ignore the spike around 1792, due to censorship of acquittals.) Gradual increase in conviction rates which declines again after mid 19th c.

But if we exclude guilty pleas and look only at jury trials, the pattern is rather different.

Conviction rates annually, excluding guilty pleas

Conviction rates in jury trials after the 1820s rapidly decrease – not much over 60% by end of 1870s. That’s much closer to 18th-century conviction rates (when nearly all defendants pleaded not guilty), in spite of all the transformations inside and outside the courtroom in between.

Percentage of trials in which the defendant speaks, annually

Here the green line is the Prisoners’ Counsel Act of 1836, which afforded all prisoners the right to full legal representation. But the smoothed trend line shows it had no real impact on defendant speech. Defendants had, at the judge’s discretion, been permitted defence counsel to examine and cross-examine witnesses since the 1730s.Legal historians emphasise the transformative effect of the Act; but from defendants’ point of view it seems less important; for them it was already a done deal and the Bloody Code reforms were much more significant.

Defendant speech/silence and verdicts, by decade

This breaks down the first graph by decade – shows that the general pattern is consistent throughout period, though exact % and proportions do vary.

Defendant speech/silence/guilty pleas and sentences

Moreover, harsher outcomes for defendants who speak continues into sentencing. Plea bargaining (though bear in mind this only really applies to c.1830-1880) -> most likely to result in imprisonment, much less likely to receive transportation (and hardly ever death) sentence. Defendants who speak are the most likely to face tougher sentences – death or transportation, more so than the silent.

(Don’t yet have actual punishments – the next big job is getting the linked Digital Panopticon life archives…)

Defendant word counts (all words spoken in a trial)

How much did defendants say? Not a lot. The largest single group of defendants is the silent (0 words). But even those who spoke usually didn’t say very much. [average overall was 55 words] Eloquent, articulate defendants few and far between!

Defendant word counts and verdicts

So if you did speak, it was better to say plenty!? Or in other words, more articulate defendants had a better chance of acquittal (though they were still slightly worse off than the silent).

Defences: average word counts and verdicts

Finish with focus on defendants’ defence statements – made by nearly all defendants who spoke and for the majority the only thing they did say (a minority questioned witnesses or made statements at other points in the trial).

overall word counts of defence statements * guilty (n=7696) average wc 44.97 * notguilty (n=1414) average wc 65.15

On average, defence statements by the acquitted were longer. Again highlights that more articulate defendants do better.

Also, there is more variety (less repetition) in the statements of acquitted defendants. 98% (1374) of their 1414 defence statements are unique (crudely measured, as text strings). Whereas 93.17% (7170) of statements by convicted defendants are unique.

Start to look more closely at what they say? Not possible yet to investigate in depth, but use some simple linguistic measures.

Defences: Words least associated with acquittal

mercy
picked
man
i
distress
carry
along
them
beg
stop
up
young

In linguistics, keywords are “items of unusual frequency in comparison with a reference corpus”. Compared the larger set of defence statements by defendants who were convicted with defence statements by defendants who were acquitted

Table above is the words least likely to be associated with acquittal – ie, the least successful defence statements…

I want to highlight:

  • mercy + beg
  • picked (+ carry might be related)
  • i
  • distress

Remember that many defence statements were not really ‘defences’; they were more of an appeal to the judges’ clemency after sentencing – ‘I beg for mercy’ or claiming extenuating circumstances (‘I was in distress’) in particular. Also Playing down offence – ‘I picked up the things’.

And in general many short bare statements beginning with “I” rather than more complex narratives.

Four hopeless short defences

I picked four of the most frequent short (non-)defences that are heavily associated with convictions, to explore a bit further. (excludes use of any of these within longer defences)

defence frequency % convicted
nothing to say 109 98.17
mercy 125 98.40
picked up/found 223 93.72
distress 82 97.56

Main variants:

  • I have nothing to say
  • I beg for mercy/leave it to the mercy of the court/throw myself on the mercy of the court
  • I picked it (them) up/found it
  • I was in (great) distress/I was distressed/I did it through distress

The next four graphs show the percentage of defendant speakers who use each phrase in short defence statements in each decade.

I have nothing to say

This was very popular before 1810s – peaks at use by 4% of defendants who speak in decade 1801-10 and then rapidly disappears.

I beg for mercy/leave to the mercy of the court

Slightly later popularity – slower decline after 1810s

I picked it up/found it

Less dramatic decline after 1820s.

I was in distress/did it through distress

Curious that this doesn’t appear at all in 1780s; peaks 1810s.

Conclusions

So there are variations in timing/speed of decline, but broadly, these hopeless ’non-’defence statements, which are almost certain to be followed by conviction, are all declining in use and rarely heard in the courtroom after the 1820s. That fits, it seems to me, with both the gradual decline in defendant speech and the more rapid rise from the late 1820s of plea bargaining.

First, the defence lawyer option meant that defendants were better off finding the money for a lawyer who could try to undermine the prosecution case through aggressively examining witnesses. This was happening from the 1780s onwards.

And second, the plea bargaining option from the late 1820s meant that if defendants really had no viable defence, had been caught red-handed, they were better off pleading guilty in return for a less harsh punishment.

And so: for defendants who wanted to walk free or at least lessen their punishment, if not for later historians trying to hear their voices and understand what made them tick, silence was golden.

More stuff

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Posted in Academic Work, Crime/Law, Digital History, Digital Panopticon, Old Bailey Online | Leave a comment

Settlement and Removal: Poor Relief and Exclusion in 18th-century London

From the Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1662, or so-called “Settlement Act” onwards, various pieces of 17th- and 18th- century legislation formally codified entitlement to parochial poor relief by “settlement“. The main ways of gaining a settlement of your own were: completing a formally contracted apprenticeship; at least one year in continuous service; renting a house worth at least £10 a year; paying parish taxes or serving as a parish officer. Many people’s settlements, however, were ‘derived’: a married woman from her husband; children born in wedlock from their parents. But illegitimate children got their settlement from their place of birth. And a new settlement erased previous ones.

In theory, everyone in England and Wales in the 18th century ‘belonged’ to a parish, somewhere. Which was fine… as long as you had a settlement in a place where you actually wanted to be. But the flip side of settlement was removal: exclusion was key to the workings of a locally-based poor relief policy.

The case study: St Clement Danes

This paper is early work in progress based on sources digitised by the London Lives project, exploring the narratives of the poor in examinations and petitions and linking together records to trace larger patterns. The focus here on one London Lives parish in the second half of the 18th century, St Clement Danes, a large urban parish to the west of the City of London, with a population of around 13,000 in 1801, of whom about 600 were receiving poor relief (costing the parish about £7000 p.a.). It was fairly well off, on average, with varied local trades and industries. But, as is often the case, averages hide considerable variation, with poor and rich living close together.

Overview of the data

I’m focusing on three sources from London Lives:

1) a dataset of settlement, bastardy and vagrancy examinations for St Clement Danes and another London Lives parish, St Botolph Aldgate, covering 1739-1800 (containing about 11000 exams in total). There were three main possible outcomes of a settlement examination: the examined was shown to have a settlement in the parish; their settlement was somewhere else but they could produce a settlement certificate guaranteeing that their own parish would relieve them, so they were allowed to stay; removal from the parish.

2) the second dataset is a Clement Danes register of removal orders (covering late 1752 to mid 1793; I chopped off the part-years at beginning and end for a convenient 40 year period).

Many archives have large numbers of surviving 18th-century pauper examinations, but records of removals are much less common. Linking the two means I can begin to examine more systematically the outcomes of examinations. For the period 1753-92, then, there are 5046 examinations and 2479 orders, of which 2357 could be linked to at least one exam. (Conversely, 2365 exams could be linked to at least one removal order.)

3) And finally, I’ve linked these to petitions in the Sessions papers from parishes appealing removals from Clement Danes.

1: annual counts of examinations 1753-92, broken down by type of exam

Figure 1 shows the three types of examinations: settlement, bastardy and vagrancy. The vast majority of exams in this series were settlement exams (green); bastardy exams (red) account for about 10% of the total. The vagrancy category is a very thin blue line at the bottom of just a few years; the numbers were tiny. There will have been more vagrancy exams than this, but they were usually recorded separately, often on pre-printed forms (which makes me a bit curious about the few that do turn up in this series – why are they here at all?).

2: annual counts of removal orders linked to exams, 1753-92, by type of order

In Figure 2 we can see there are two types of removal order in the register: non-specific orders I’ll simply call ‘pauper removals’ and vagrant removals (sometimes called passes, as the removed were “passed” to their destinations). Most of the orders that couldn’t be linked to examinations were vagrant removals, again indicating that vagrant examinations were recorded separately. But this graph shows that a striking proportion of settlement exams ultimately resulted in vagrant removal orders, highlighting the fuzzy boundaries between the poor laws and vagrancy laws.

Generally, parishes had an incentive to do this because they had to foot the bill for pauper removals, while the county paid for vagrants to be removed. It looks suspiciously as though this was getting rather out of hand in the mid 1750s. In the spring of 1757 the bench at Middlesex Sessions was very concerned about the numbers of vagrants and costs of removals. In July they appointed a new contractor to handle the removal of vagrants and (in what looks to me at least very much like a slap on the wrist to negligent JPs) ordered that JPs were “not to sign any Vagrant Pass” without proof “that an Act of Vagrancy hath been committed”. There was a dramatic and immediate impact in St Clement Danes: of 75 vagrant removals in 1757, only 7 were dated after July.

Even so, vagrant removals continue to be quite conspicuous in comparison to examinations; so I want to look more closely at the settlement exams that wound up in vagrant removals to see if there’s any real justification beyond financial expediency. (The smaller increases in vagrant removals after 1757 do generally match years which have vagrant examinations, but they only partially correlate to the years with the largest numbers of exams.)

Overall, about 50% of settlement examinations led to removal orders. The main concern of bastardy exams was establishing paternity rather than settlement (though occasionally a single exam covers both topics), and so there are much lower linkage rates between these and the orders (about 20 of 500+ could be linked to orders). However, the women examined in bastardy exams often have later settlement exams as well, and so I have some more linkage work to do to establish whether more than the 20 were actually removed at some point.

3: gender in settlement/vagrancy exams, 1752-93

As in many other studies (and even after ignoring bastardy exams), by far the majority of examinants and the removed were women. They averaged 75% of the examined over the period, reflecting women’s vulnerability to poverty. However, women were slightly less likely to be removed than the male examinants, and it’s possible that there’s some correlation between the peaks in exams/removals and higher rates of male removal. The differences are not large; but I have some more number-crunching to do here.

Contesting exclusion

I want to look now at cases in which examinants returned to the parish after being removed by an order. Between 1753 and 1792, at least 122 examinants were removed more than once. This happened in two ways: first, examinants were returned after the receiving parish disputed the case; second, the examinant themselves might reject the magistrates’ authority and return of their own volition. [Links to documents for each of the cases mentioned are listed at the end of the post.]

The returned

Parishes to which paupers were removed had a right of appeal to Quarter Sessions (or to the Court of Aldermen in the City of London). Between 1750 and 1800, there are about 2300 petitions of this kind in the Middlesex, Westminster and City of London Sessions papers in London Lives. Individual parishes did not appeal many removals: the process was very expensive; and it’s argued that in London many parishes had informal agreements to accept paupers from each other (‘friendly passes’).

I’ve found 44 appeals against removals from Clement Danes between 1753-1792,  all of which can be linked to examinations and/or removal orders. The petitions themselves are usually uninformative about the reasons for appeal (unlike many other petitions in the Sessions Papers). But the linked examinations can be more revealing.

In 1760, the parish of St Brides appealed against Clement Danes sending them an 8 year old girl, Mary Ives. Mary’s mother was dead and she’d been abandoned by her father James, whose settlement was unknown. Mary had been born in St Brides; but she was legitimate so that was irrelevant to her settlement. So it’s not surprising that their appeal was upheld and Clement Danes had to take Mary back.[1]

Or, in 1762, St Sepulchre’s appealed CD’s decision to send them Susanna Flood, the widow of Noah Flood, and their three children. According to the settlement examinations, Noah had only served 5 years of his Apprenticeship in St. Sepulchre and the final two years with a different master in Hornsey. Again, the appeal was successful. Within three months Susanna and her children had been dispatched to Hornsey instead.[2]

On the facts of the exam, sending Mary Ives to St Brides seems simply opportunistic; the JPs must have known perfectly well that there was nothing in the examination to support this course of action. The most charitable interpretation is that they had some reason to believe her father might turn out to have a settlement in St Sepulchre, and so the recipients would not bother to appeal. Equally, I’m sceptical that the right course of action in a case like Noah Flood’s (though clearly not entirely straightforward) wasn’t well established and known to JPs by the 1760s. Both cases seem to suggest that getting rid of unwanted paupers as quickly as possible could take priority over establishing the facts of uncertain cases. And yet, if that were really the case, we might expect appeals to be rather more frequent than they actually were.

[Oops: on reading the Flood examinations again, I looked more carefully at the dates, and realised I castigated the JPs unfairly: Susanna’s first examination only mentioned the St Sepulchre apprenticeship and it wasn’t until she was examined again after the appeal that she completed the narrative.]

But one more caveat. Of the 44 linked petitions, 15 (14%) were in just one year, 1785. The mid- to late-1780s were busy years for examinations and removals in Clement Danes. The 1785 Sessions Papers are unusually full of parish petitions – but so are those for 1784, and that year’s files contain no appeals against Clement Danes at all. What is going on?! Survival rates of documents, including petitions, in the Sessions Papers are variable and uncertain, but this is a very curious anomaly.

The returners

In all this, the interests and desires of the paupers themselves are clearly the lowest priority of all. (As evidenced by the way in which parish officials were apparently quite happy to label significant numbers of them vagrants – a criminal offence, remember – in the 1750s, simply to save some money on removal costs.) But we can, sometimes, begin to trace something of what the poor wanted for themselves.

Some examinants gave accounts that investigation rapidly proved to be false. Thomas White’s claim in 1769 to have a settlement in CD based on 2 1/2 years service was “On Enquiry found… to be false [, the master] never having kept house a Twelvmonth in the Parish & the Examinant only an Earrand Boy for a little time”. If Thomas lied because he didn’t want to leave the parish, the tactic may have worked: there’s no sign of a removal order.[3]

Challenging the authority of the magistrates and law by returning after a removal order was a risky business; returners could be labelled as vagrants and subject to the harsher penalties of the vagrancy laws. Nonetheless, some returned several times over years or even decades.

Ann Brown, a single woman aged around 40 in 1755, had been a servant to a Mr Champ in Oxford for about 18 months during the mid 1740s. There was no doubt about her settlement: she gave almost exactly the same account to the CD magistrates four times between 1751 and 1757. The first occasion pre-dates the removals register but on each of the subsequent times they sent her back to Oxford as a vagrant. An order in 1755 describes her as “an incorrigible rogue”, which had a specific meaning in the vagrancy laws: it referred to repeat offenders who could be more harshly punished, from imprisonment with hard labour potentially up to transportation to the colonies. In practice this was rare, but Ann would surely have been warned it could happen. And yet she came back again two years later. And while most repeat returners came quite short distances from other London parishes, each time she had to cover a 50 mile journey from Oxford.[4]

On her first examination in April 1758, Mary Jenkins appears to be just one of the many women who were examined about their settlement because their husbands had recently died, gone away to military service, been imprisoned, or simply deserted them. Her husband Henry was at sea and they had 3 young sons. After their marriage, Henry had rented a house in St Olave Southwark at an annual rent of 11 guineas, so the CD JPs had Mary and her young sons removed there: a straightforward case. But Mary returned to CD four times, only to be removed again. Again her motives are unknown.[5]

In these cases it seems to me there must be some connection to the parish that would not be documented in settlement examinations, but whether I can trace records that might shed light on them, I don’t know. Tantalisingly, an Ann Brown was baptised in Clement Danes in 1713; unfortunately, it’s a common sort of name and there were quite a few Ann Browns born in Middlesex (let alone anywhere else) in a reasonable date range. Conversely, in what I’m fairly sure is Henry Jenkins’ and Mary’s marriage record, her maiden name is transcribed as “Rouffinee”, an apparently unique surname (this could be either a transcription error or an unusual spelling of, perhaps, an Irish name like Roughneen?).

Irregular unions and family breakup

And I want to close with a case highlighting the themes running through many examinations of marriage breakdown, ‘irregular’ unions and their implications, the potential for paupers to be excluded not only from parishes but from their own families.

Ann Threader was examined in February 1785. She had married John Threader ‘about 30 years ago’ at the Fleet (I think actually in 1750), and he deserted her just two months afterwards. She had never seen him again but had heard that he re-married, and that he had later died. A few years after he left her, she moved in with Jacob Wesley, a shoemaker, with whom she had three illegitimate children, aged between 9 and 14 at the time of the exam. Because Ann and Jacob had moved house during their relationship, their children had been born in two different parishes in Southwark. CD attempted to remove the children to those parishes, but both removals were successfully appealed at the next Middlesex Sessions.

This time the examination itself sheds no light on the grounds for appeal, but it has a marginal note that CD were ‘obliged’ to take the children because they had already ‘been passed to us some time back’. Whatever the reason, CD subsequently relieved the children, although they quickly had the two older children bound out as apprentices, and they also gave Ann occasional out-relief for some years.[6]

Following the failure of a marriage or long-term absence of a husband, cohabitation and (less often) bigamous re-marriage were both options to be found in settlement exams, and I want to explore this in more depth in the future. Just as with ‘regular’ marriages, the break-up of an ‘irregular’ union due to a partner’s death or departure could make the remaining family members vulnerable to exclusion. But with these unions, the settlement laws could  in theory result in the break up of an entire family: the illegitimate children to the parishes of their birth, the mother and father to separate parishes altogether.

Future directions

Because this research is in early stages I don’t have substantial conclusions yet, so instead a few thoughts on future directions.

The first strand relates to the experiences of the poor themselves, and how settlement strategies could go awry. People – perhaps especially poor people! – didn’t always live the well-ordered lives imagined by settlement law and there were many potential sources of dispute. Young people might not complete apprenticeships or service, for a range of reasons. (Apprenticeships were long and might well start in one parish and finish in another because of a master’s house move, death, bankruptcy or abuse of apprentices.) In any case, young adults didn’t always stay put after gaining a settlement of their own; they might move to find work, or return to their childhood homes, but never manage to gain another settlement. Elderly widows or young orphans could end up being sent to parishes they had never even visited because their husbands or parents had worked or lived there many decades earlier. Young people could be separated from the rest of their family because they had been born before their parents’ marriage. I want to explore these experiences in more depth, and those of the poor who resisted exclusion.

Second, there’s the larger context of poor law and settlement practice. Ann Winter and Thijs Lambrecht have recently argued for the importance of investigating local experiences and variations in settlement practice, and I think Jeremy Boulton has brilliantly shown the value of detailed record linkage in a local case study, for St Martin in the Fields. In the late 18th century, Clement Danes had a reputation as a parish where migrants could go to claim poor relief without too much scrutiny by parish officials – a “casualty parish” (indeed, the best casualty parish!). I’m curious, among other things, how accurate that image was. (One thing I do know already is that Clement Danes removal rates were considerably higher than those in St Martins a few decades earlier in the century. The numbers of examinations in Clement Danes are also much higher than those in the St Botolph Aldgate records, though they had roughly similar size populations.) How consistent was practice in Clement Danes, and how did it match up to settlement law? In reality, how likely were widows or abandoned wives or illegitimate children likely to be despatched to far-off parishes? And how does it compare to other London parishes?

This is a slightly revised version of a paper delivered at Cultures of Exclusion in the Early Modern World, University of Warwick, May 2017.

London Lives documents

[1] Mary Ives

[2] Susanna Flood and family

[3] Thomas White

[4] Ann Brown

[5] Mary Jenkins and family

[6] Ann Threader and family

  • Examination, 1785
  • Removal orders
  • Petitions: St Georges Southwark and St Mary Overys
  • Apprentice register for Thomas and Hannah Threader:
  • Example of relief to family members (in the form of clothing)
  • (FindMyPast/FamilySearch) marriage of John Thredder to Ann Clark, 28 Feb 1750, London; FamilySearch also has a Fleet marriage record for John Thredder on the same date. Despite the date discrepancy, the match seems likely (35 years is a long time…)
  • (FMP/FamilySearch) marriage of John Thredder to Mary Poore, St Martin in the Fields, April 1763; burial of John Threader, St Martin in the Fields, 20 Jan 1772. But there is also a burial record for a John Threader in 1764 at St Ann Soho, so can’t be certain that the St Martins records are the right man.

Additional reading

London Lives: Poor Law

Zotero bibliography (work in progress)

Noted in particular:

  • Jeremy Boulton, “Double Deterrence: Settlement and Practice in London’s West End, 1725-1824”, in Migration, Settlement and Belonging in Europe, 1500–1930s: Comparative Perspectives, edited by Anne Winter and Steve King, 54–80. New York: Berghahn, 2013.
  • Norma Landau, “The Laws of Settlement and the Surveillance of Immigration in Eighteenth-Century Kent.” Continuity and Change 3, no. 03 (December 1988): 391. doi:10.1017/S026841600000429X.
  • A. Winter and T. Lambrecht, “Migration, Poor Relief and Local Autonomy: Settlement Policies in England and the Southern Low Countries in the Eighteenth Century.” Past & Present 218, no. 1 (February 1, 2013): 91–126. doi:10.1093/pastj/gts021.

Further information

London Lives Paupers and Petitioners project

All the data for this paper is shared under Creative Commons licences and can be downloaded:

(The removal orders dataset includes the data for the linkage between the three sources as used in this paper.)

Posted in Early Modern, London Lives Paupers, Plebeian Lives, Women/Gender | Leave a comment

Women’s History Month 2017: Afterthoughts

To wrap up this month, this post is just a few notes – half-formed thoughts, not ‘conclusions’ – on some recurring themes that struck me as I was writing and researching posts (and shaped some of my choices as the month went on).

Uncertainties, silences, fragments

We often don’t know who wrote down these texts, how much of it really represents the words and thoughts of the woman herself, or how much is bound by institutional or cultural convention (let alone how accurately it reflects “what really happened”). Some of the texts were written by unsympathetic officials or professional scribes; some were not published until long after their ostensible author’s death, perhaps in service of someone else’s agenda.

Moreover, we often know very little about who the women were beyond these surviving words, especially the poorer women in many of the manuscript sources, which exacerbates the problems of interpretation. Even in the case of the aristocratic Bess of Hardwick, not all that much is known of her early life before she made her first advantageous marriage. Tracing a poor, migrant woman who had travelled long distances and changed her surname at least once is often likely to be impossible. Women of colour – especially slaves – have no surname at all in many records (an additional example being this London petition from Sophia, a Native of the East Indies, which was on the short list for inclusion).

Travel and migration

Many of the women travelled long distances during their lives – not necessarily voluntarily – and experienced the perils of travel, by sea or land, before modern transportation systems, as well as homesickness and grief at enforced separations from their homes and loved ones, separations that for some would be permanent. And if these experiences were sometimes startlingly different from the mobility of modern life – a journey that took 5 months in the early 18th century may now be a matter of hours by car or minutes by air – there were some equally striking modern resonances: resistance to migration or refugees’ experiences of being torn away from home and family.

The familial is the political

The early modern household-family detailed by Naomi Tadmor is very present in these accounts. There are abundant close and loving family ties – perhaps especially noteworthy have been the bonds between mothers and daughters. Several posts have shown the importance of gifts, bequests, loans, mutual support between family members. But we also see the family as a hierarchical institution in which subordinates were supposed to know their place, one where servants could be accused of theft and find it difficult to defend themselves, and where justice might only be had by doggedly appealing to higher authorities.

All the posts

Posted in Early Modern, WHM, Women/Gender | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Women Petitioners: Belinda Sutton, an ex-slave in Massachusetts

In February 1783, Belinda Sutton petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for a pension from the estate of Isaac Royall Jr, her late master. (In this petition she names herself simply ‘Belinda, an Affrican’, but in later documents she gave the surname Sutton, her married name.) She had been born in Ghana 70 years earlier and kidnapped by slavers when she was just 12 years old.  The petition is one of the earliest narratives by an African-American woman, and an early demand for reparations for the injustice and exploitation of slavery. The court ordered that she should have her pension, but she had to petition again a number of times in later years to continue receiving it.

The Petition of Belinda an Affrican, humbly shews.

That seventy years have rolled away, since she on the banks of the Rio da Valta received her existence. The mountains covered with spicy forests, the valleys loaded with the richest fruits, spontaneously produced, joined to that happy temperature of air to exclude excess, would have yielded her the most compleat felicity, had not her mind received early impressions of the cruelty of men, whose faces were like the moon, and whose bows and arrows were like the thunder and the lightning of the clouds. The idea of these, the most dreadful of all enemies, filled her infant slumbers with horror, and her noontide moments with cruel apprehensions! But her affrighted imagination, in its most alarming extension, never represented distresses equal to what she hath since really experienced. For before she had twelve years injoyed the fragrance of her native groves, and e’er she realized, that Europeans placed their happiness in the yellow dust which she carelessly marked with her infant footsteps, even when she, in a sacred grove, with each hand in that of a tender parent, was paying her devotions to the great Orisa who made all things, an armed band of white men, driving many of her countrymen in chains, rushed into the hallowed shades! Could the tears, the sighs and supplications, bursting from tortured parental affection, have blunted the keen edge of avarice, she might have been rescued from agony, which many of her countrys children have felt, but which none hath ever yet described. In vain she lifted her supplicating voice to an insulted father, and her guiltless hands to a dishonoured deity! She was ravished from the bosom of her country, from the arms of her friends, while the advanced age of her parents, rendering them unfit for servitude, cruelly separated her from them forever!

Scenes which her imagination had never conceived of – a floating world – the sporting monsters of the deep and the familiar meetings of billows and clouds strove but in vain to divert her melancholly attention, from three hundred Affricans in chains, suffering the most excruciating torments; and some of them rejoicing that the pangs of death came like a balm to their wounds.

Once more her eyes were blest with a continent – but alas! how unlike the land where she received her being! Here all things appeared unpropitious – she learned to catch the Ideas, marked by the sounds of language, only to know that her doom was slavery, from which death alone was to emancipate her. What did it avail her, that the walls of her lord were hung with splendor, and that the dust troden underfoot in her native country, crowded his gates with sordid worshipers? The laws had rendered her incapable of receiving property, and though she was a free moral agent, accountable for her actions, yet she never had a moment at her own disposal!

Fifty years her faithful hands have been compelled to ignoble servitude for the benefit of an Isaac Royall, untill, as if nations must be agitated, and the world convulsed for the preservation of that freedom which the Almighty Father intended for all the human race, the present war was commenced. The terror of men armed in the cause of freedom, compelled her master to fly and to breathe away his life in a land where lawless domination sits enthroned, pouring bloody outrage and cruelty on all who dare to be free.

The face of your petitioner is now marked with the furrows of time, and her frame feebly bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the laws of the land, is denied the injoyment of one morsel of that immense wealth, a part whereof hath been accumilated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.

Wherefore casting herself at the feet of your honours, as to a body of men, formed for the extirpation of vassalage, for the reward of virtue, and the just returns of honest industry, she prays, that such allowance may be made her out of the estate of Colonel Royall, as will prevent her and her more infirm daughter from misery in the greatest extreme, and scatter comfort over the short and downward path of their lives

And she will ever pray.

Belinda’s petitions in the Harvard Antislavery Petitions Massachusetts Dataverse (with links to images):

Petition of an African slave, to the legislature of Massachusetts (full text of the printed version of Belinda’s petition, reprinted in William & Mary Quarterly)

Belinda Sutton and her petitions.

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Women Petitioners: London Servants

I’m going to round off WHM2017 with a couple of posts indulging my current interests in petitions. Today I have two petitions from the London Lives Petitions Project: both are from working women who petitioned London magistrates for help after their employers’ actions had got them into serious trouble with the law. The first appealed to the justices because, she said, she had no other friends to help her in London; the second claimed abuses of power by her dishonest employer’s friends and relatives. Both women were subsequently exonerated.

Elizabeth Rainshaw, falsely accused of theft by her mistress in 1691:

The humble petition of Elizabeth Rainshaw

Sheweth that your petitioner hath lived in ye service of Mr. Scott (son in law of Justice Newman) about one year & an half & has been intrusted severall times with moneys & goods by her mistress to a considerable value; But now lately their being provision of coals brought into her said masters house the doors were sett open for them to goe in & out at pleasure.

That your petitioner’s mistress alleadging she lost six silver spoons the same day & 2 watches, hath charged your petitioner with the same & caused her to be comitted to Bridewell & has bound your petitioner’s uncle also over to appear before your Worshipps as being a confederate with her notwithstanding he is known to be an honest sufficient tradesman of the parish of Fulham in Middlesex & came not nere your petitioner yet the said Misstresse Scott in the night time cryd out her said uncle was come to rob them, & caused her husband to goe out of his house with 2 pistolls in his hands to the watch to seek the man that intrubled at their door & it happened to be one of their neighbors; Now for as much as the said Mrs. Scott hath heretofore accused severall of her servants for theft (vizt.) one for a dog of a hundred guineas price & one other for things afterwards found in her own closett & hath brought her servants to disgrace when they were not guilty; And your petitioner being bread up in ye country & hath no friends alive but her said uncle James Rainshaw, & being innocent of the said fact,

Your petitioner therefore humbly prays your Worshipps will be pleased strictly to examine the circumstances of the said matter which are too large to incert herein [LL LMWJPS653020007]

Elizabeth was tried at the Old Bailey Sessions of July 1691 and acquitted, ‘the Evidence being Circumstantial‘. (There is no way of knowing from the brief report whether her appeal to Westminster JPs had any influence on the outcome of the trial.)

*

Martha Johnson, duped by a thieving employer in 1699:

The humble petition of Martha Johnson

Sheweth that your petitioner is bound over to this present Sessions for receiveing a parcell of plate from one Henry Marline, who stole the same, from James Liege his friend and relation, as to the felony your petitioner is innocent thereof, as may hereafter appear. That your petitioner well knoweing the said Marline to be a gentleman of undoubted creditt and unspolled reputation, who brought unto your petitioner in his fowle linnen (shee then being his washer woman) the plate aforesd, alleadgeing it not onely to be his owne, butt that being under an obligacon to pay a summe of money to support his creditt or he was utterly ruind, requested your petitioner to sell the same, which by reason of her poore circumstances, shee att first refused; butt was for the reasons aforesaid prevaild upon by the said Marline, he offering to goe along with your petitioner to indemnify her from all harm that should happen on that occasion.

That the said plate was stopt, and your petitioner being seized, had Marline apprehended, and deliverd into the charge of one John Kimpton the constable, who, either by negligence or combination with the said Liege and one Bobine friends and relations to Marline, who out of the tender regard they had for his life and reputation sufferd him to escape, the truth whereof your petitioner can make appear by severall credible witnesses.

May it therefore please your Lordshipp to discharge your petitioner And that the constable being now bound over, may be proceeded against according to law. [LMSLPS150100093]

Sir Robert Jeffreys, one of the JPs, investigated Martha’s case and reported that he was ‘well satisfied of her innocencye & integrity in this matter‘.

*

How an 18th-century petitions works

Petitions of the People? (many headed monster)

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The Journey of Sarah Knight (1666-1727)

In October 1704, Sarah Knight left her home town of Boston, MA, for a five-month journey on horseback to New York, which she recorded in a travel diary which is memorable for its descriptions of the perils and people she encountered along the way, her observations of local characteristics, and racist comments on native Americans and slaves. Also notable, in contrast to several writers I’ve profiled this month, is the near absence of God: Sarah is more grateful to her human guides than to divine Providence for her deliverances from danger.

‘Terrifying darkness’ and the ‘kind conductress of the night’:

Here We found great difficulty in Travailing, the way being very narrow, and on each side the Trees and bushes gave us very unpleasent welcomes wth their Branches and bow’s, wch wee could not avoid, it being so exceeding dark. My Guide, as before so now, putt on harder than I, wth my weary bones, could follow; so left mee and the way beehind him. Now Returned my distressed aprehensions of the place where I was: the dolesome woods, my Company next to none, Going I knew not whither, and encompased wth Terrifying darkness; The least of which was enough to startle a more Masculine courage. Added to which the Reflections, as in the afternoon of ye day that my Call was very Questionable, wch till then I had not so Prudently as I ought considered. Now, coming to ye foot of a hill, I found great difficulty in ascending; But being got to the Top, was there amply recompenced with the friendly Appearance of the Kind Conductress of the night, Just then Advancing above the Horisontall Line. The Raptures wch the Sight of that fair Planett produced in mee, caused mee, for the Moment, to forgett my present wearyness and past toils; and Inspir’d me for most of the remaining way with very divirting tho’ts, some of which, with the other Occurances of the day, I reserved to note down when I should come to my Stage. [16]

Devilish hosts:

About four in the morning, we set out for Kingston… This Rode was poorly furnished wth accommodations for Travellers, so that we were forced to ride 22 miles by the post’s account, but neerer thirty by mine, before wee could bait so much as our Horses, wch I exceedingly complained of. But the post encourag’d mee, by saying wee should be well accommodated anon at mr. Devil’s, a few miles further. But I questioned whether we ought to go to the Devil to be helpt out of affliction. However, like the rest of Deluded souls that post to ye Infernal denn, Wee made all posible speed to this Devil’s Habitation; where alliting, in full assurance of good accommodation, wee were going in. But meeting his two daughters, as I suposed twins, they so neerly resembled each other, both in features and habit, and look’t as old as the Divel himselfe, and quite as Ugly, We desired entertainm’t, but could hardly get a word out of ‘um, till with our Importunity, telling them our necesity, & c. they call’d the old Sophister, who was as sparing of his words as his daughters had bin, and no, or none, was the reply’s bee made us to our demands. Hee differed only in this from the old fellow in to’ther Country: hee let us depart.  [20]

‘Buggbears’ (both geographical and human):

Here wee took leave of York Government, and Descending the Mountainos passage that almost broke my heart in ascending before, we come to Stamford, a well compact Town, but miserable meeting house, wch we passed, and thro’ many and great difficulties, as Bridges which were exceeding high and very tottering and of vast Length, steep and Rocky Hills and precipices, (Buggbears to a fearful female travailer.) About nine at night we come to Norrwalk, having crept over a timber of a Broken Bridge about thirty foot long, and perhaps fifty to ye water. I was exceeding tired and cold when we come to our Inn, and could get nothing there but poor entertainment, and the impertinant Bable of one of the worst of men, among many others of which our Host made one, who, had he bin one degree Impudenter, would have outdone his Grandfather. And this I think is the most perplexed night I have yet had…

From hence we went to Stamford, the next Town, in which I observed but few houses, and those not very good ones. But the people that I conversed with were civill and good natured. Here we staid till late at night, being to cross a Dangerous River ferry, the River at that time full of Ice; but after about four hours waiting with great difficulty wee got over. My fears and fatigues prevented my here taking any particular observation. Being got to Milford, it being late in the night, I could go no further; my fellow travailer going forward, I was invited to Lodg at Mrs. –, a very kind and civill Gentlewoman, by whom I was handsomely and kindly entertained till the next night. The people here go very plain in their apparel (more plain than I had observed in the towns I had passed) and seem to be very grave and serious. They told me there was a singing Quaker lived there, or at least had a strong inclination to be so, His Spouse not at all affected that way. Some of the singing Crew come there one day to visit him, who being then abroad, they sat down (to the woman’s no small vexation) Humming and singing and groneing after their conjuring way–Says the woman are you singing quakers? Yea says They–Then take my squalling Brat of a child here and sing to it says she for I have almost split my throat wth singing to him and cant get the Rogue to sleep. They took this as a great Indignity, and mediately departed. Shaking the dust from their Heels left the good woman and her Child among the number of the wicked. [52]

The Journal of Madam Knight (Early Americas Digital Archive)

Overland travel in Connectict from footpaths to interstates

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Mary Saxby (1738-1801), an 18th-century vagrant and memoirist

Mary Saxby’s Memoirs of a Female Vagrant was published posthumously, with the twin goals of raising some money for impoverished relatives and ‘prompting the active beneficence of the present age, to regard the wandering classes of the poor, with
that attention which it is needful for their relief and reformation’.

And so Mary’s memoir is simultaneously a detailed personal account of experiences of extreme poverty and itinerancy in the 18th century, a spiritual autobiography (with its Providential world view linking her to both Alice Thornton and Ann Fanshawe), and a text for moral reformers (the prime audience, no doubt, for editorial annotations like ‘The vagrant classes of the British poor appear to be inferior in civilization to the Bedouin Arabs’ [p.19]). The rarity and quality of her voice makes it an important and seductive source, but it’s also quite a challenge for historical source criticism, and one in striking contrast to the bureaucratic imperatives of pauper narratives in settlement or vagrancy examinations.

On the pride of youth:

I now wandered from town to town, till I met with a poor travelling woman, who had three daughters: and though she was a very ignorant person, yet the Lord disposed her to take pity on me in my forlorn condition; for she washed, combed, and fed me, and took as much care of me as if I had been her own. In this poor state, I might have been very happy; as she was a tender, motherly woman, and would have taught me to get my bread honestly, had I been ruled by her. But here again, my proud, imperious temper, began to shew itself incapable of any restraint. Her youngest daughter was about my age, and with her I soon contracted an intimacy. As we both had pretty good voices, we agreed to go about together, singing ballads; and to this end we determined separating from her mother. Ah, did young, inexperienced persons, know what misery awaited them, by giving way to their own headstrong passions, and escaping from the restraint of their elders, surely they would not rush on their ruin, as they too frequently do! [pp.8-9]

On more female partnerships:

I travelled as far as Dover in Kent, with very little to support me; stopping, at times, to ask for a bit of bread, to keep me from starving. When I reached the coast, I met with a woman who sung ballads, which was a profitable trade in those parts; and she took me into partnership, till we had some words and separated… Soon after this, having made myself clean and smart, I joined company with a decent woman, who had some small children. Her husband to the best of my recollection, was gone abroad; and I think that she sold hardware. We could get no lodging for our money, except in a barn; and I was young, and in that line of life which attracted the notice of men. Though it is now so long ago, I still reflect, with horror on the one hand, and gratitude on the other, on the imminent danger, in which a kind providence watched over and preserved me… [pp.11-12]

On the consequences of keeping bad company:

Out of Kent, I went into Essex; where they would not suffer any one to travel without a licence, except they could give a very good account of themselves. I, not knowing the rules of the country, sung ballads in Epping market. In the course of the day, I became acquainted with a middle aged woman, who looked like a traveller; and we went to sleep together at an alehouse. For this I soon smarted; as she proved to be a common woman, though I did not know it. Being in her company, and having been seen with her in the market, the constable came in the night, obliged us to leave our bed, and secured us till morning; when we were taken before a justice, who committed us both to Bridewell, ordering us both to be repeatedly whipped. The keeper heard my story very candidly; and I believe he was a good man. Observing my youth and inexperience, he pitied me; and remonstrated with the woman for drawing me into a snare. We were to be confined there six weeks, without any allowance. She was a good spinner; and he made her work, and give me half her earnings. As to being whipped, I knew little but the shame of it; for he took care not to hurt me. He lent me good books, gave me good counsel, and was very tender to me. I remember feeling some serious emotions, whilst reading, and some faint desires to improve by what I read and suffered; for my misery was extreme, from cold and hunger: but my heart being unchanged, as soon as I was set at liberty I returned to my former courses, wandering from place to place. [pp.15-16]

On first finding Methodism:

How I went on, for some time after this, I have almost forgot; till one day, walking in the fields with a female neighbour, one of my daughters who was with us, did something to displease me; and I asked her, what she thought would become of her, if she went on so? The woman turned round to me, and said sharply, “And what do you think will become of you? You have more knowledge than your child, and ought to be found in your duty.” I asked her what she meant; she told me, I never attended at any place of worship. I answered, I had been at church to try, and could not hear. She said, that there a meeting house in the town, and I might stand on the pulpit stairs; where she knew, I might hear. As soon as she mentioned the meeting house, I thought I would go, and make a trial: accordingly I went the next sabbath; and finding that I could hear, I continued to attend. I soon began to be much persecuted, both by my husband, and our neighbours; but I did not care for that: for I wanted to flee from the wrath to come; though, as yet, I knew not the way. I do not remember that what I heard at the meeting house was made of any use to me: but still I kept waiting, in much darkness and distress; crying to the Lord, in a poor broken way, for mercy. [pp.29-30]

The Memoirs of a Female Vagrant, written by herself (via Trove)

The girl who ran away with the gypsies

Vagrancy (London Lives)

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The will of Elen ferch Lewes (d. 1619)

Today’s offering, courtesy of the National Library of Wales’s rather amazing Welsh Wills Online project, is the 1619 will of Elen ferch Lewes of Meline, Pembrokeshire. Elen was not very wealthy (the total value of her probate inventory, included with the digitised will, was £31 17s 6d), but her will is interesting for its detailed bequests to other women, largely of clothing, cloth and domestic items. (In contrast, she leaves most of her sheep to her brothers.) The will may say something about friendships and alliances, but it also makes very clear statements about hierarchy and status.

… Item I geeve and bequeath to Elizabeth Lewes my sister one grey mare, my biggest panne, and my best coffer or chest conditionally that she shall geeve her old coffer unto my executor heereafter to be named, one black gowne, two redd petticoates, my best smock, one holland apron, one kerchieff of linnen xvj d per yard, my best ruffe band, ffoure cardegan pounds of woll whereof parte is now collored in blew.

Item I geeve and bequeath to Owen Lewes my brother the one half of my sheepe remayneinge in the custody & heardinge of Edward John, and to be delivered at May next after my decesse soe that they be before hand shorne, & one old chest or coffer.

Item I doe geeve and bequeath unto Nel Gruffith my cozen five shillinges in money being parte of a dept of x s due upon my Aunte Elizabeth Thomas widow, and payable at Kiricks[?] tyde next.

Item I geeve and bequeath unto the said Nel xxiiij s being a dept due unto me at Mecgans[?] tyde next upon my cozen George William Griffith for a little grey nagge, one apron of green saye chieffe of Scottish cloth. And one peece of white cloth wch I have made ffor blanketts.

Item I doe geve unto Katherin Thomas daughter unto Thomas George v s in money beinge the resdue of the x s due upon the said Elizabeth Thomas widow one ffemale lambe of the best that my sheepe shall rame at Maie next one kerchieffe, one fallinge band of holland & two hennes

Item I doe geeve and bequeath unto Myles the sonne of Thomas George, one parre of new woolle stockins.

Item I doe geeve & bequeath unto Elizabeth Thomas my aunte one old trammid[?] coverlette.

Item I doe geeve and bequeath to Katherin the reputed daughter of Thomas George one blacke petticoate, one wollen smock, & one redd wastcoate

Item I doe geeve and bequeath unto Maud the wieffe of George William Griffith, one peece of redd graynd cloth conteigneing 5 yeards together wth the bodies made for the same.

Item I doe geeve all my old ragges as well for daies wearing as bedd clothes unto Maud William for her paines takeing in attendeinge me in my sicknes

The rest of all my goodes cattells & chattells as well moveable or unmoveable not before bequeathed I doe geeve & bequeath unto Myles Lewes Thomas my brother…

Welsh Wills Online

Elen’s will, among others, is mentioned in Gerald Morgan, Women’s Wills in West Wales 1600-1750, Transactions of the Hon. Soc. Cymmrodorion (1992)

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