Law and Order in North Gloucestershire 1817-1850

by Janet Devereux

The handwritten records of the Gloucester Assizes, contained in large volumes in the Gloucester Record Office, can yield some interesting insights into the society of this area. To begin with, I looked at Young Offenders (under 18 years of age) in the years 1817-1819.

As no photographs were available to identify prisoners, the clerk of the court recorded the appearance and height of each young person, with any distinguishing marks. Many were said to have 'scars'. The short stature of the majority, compared with their twentieth century counterparts, is interesting. In 1818 George Bubb, a printer who obtained 4 shillings by false pretences, was 4'4" tall at 13. William Sheldon of Gloucester, an 18 year-old labourer, was 5'3½" tall. He had been accused of stealing a watch, but 'was discharged by order of the Revd. E.Jones.'

James Holloway, aged 12, who was a tiler and plasterer by trade, and who had scars on his arms, was 4'3½" tall. He had been with two fifteen year-olds who had stolen a silver watch and were imprisoned for six months in 1818. Probably because of his youth, James was discharged by proclamation.

The clerk to the court appeared fascinated by the appearance of a fourteen year-old in 1818. William Howell, 44" tall. 'Head completely bald, not a sign of a hair on it.' With older boys, he had stolen eight loaves of bread, value 4/-, and was put in prison for two months.

The occupations of the accused were also listed. It was unusual to be described as 'having no trade.' The majority were labourers; perhaps this covered all those at work who were not apprentices. We have noted a thirteen year-old printer and a twelve year-old tiler. Later offenders in Tewkesbury included lace-makers, stocking framework weavers, brushmaker, nailer, grocer and waterman. (1819-37)


Very young offenders, who were usually involved with older boys, might he discharged or let off with a light sentence, like James Holloway. Some were sent to a Bridewell, or House of Correction. In February 1818, George Bubb, aged 13, who had 'behaved very well' in prison, served three calendar months in the House of Correction at Horsley. He 'read a little.' As he was a printer, this would have been necessary, presumably. 

On the other hand, Samuel Webb, aged 14, a labourer, who was not able to read, was sent to the 'penitentiary' for one calendar month in December 1817. Whilst there he 'behaved very badly'. His crime was to take a green coloured greatcoat, value 15/-. A very young boy, John Pinter from Bristol, was only 11 (although 4'4" tall) when he stole a silver watch. This was such a serious matter that he was sent to the penitentiary for two years in 1818. 

Whipping was sometimes recommended, as for Edward Stone in 1817, combined with a prison sentence. A later example (1850) was William Carruthers of Tewkesbury, a stocking maker aged 16. He had stolen a bushel of beans. He began a prison sentence on December 26th„1850. Since he had been sentenced to be 'well whipped', he was given thirty-one lashes on March 20th.,1851, five days before his release from prison. The psychology of this is puzzling, but perhaps having the corporal punishment 'hanging over his head' for three months was considered to be more salutary. 

At the December Assizes in 1818 an older boy of 18, William Harris, a labourer from Barnwood, was condemned to death, although reprieved, for stealing bacon. 1818, incidentally, was the year of the notorious incident known as 'the Peterloo Massacre' at Spa Fields, Manchester. (The famous victory at Waterloo was fresh in everyone's minds). The poor conditions of the working class in the post-war years had bred a protest which was dealt with in draconian style by the authorities, who feared an uprising, Food could be scarce for the low paid or the unemployed, and there must have been much pilfering of provisions. Even in 1993, when 16 year-olds are homeless in Gloucester, and state benefits are denied to those without a fixed address, at a time of high unemployment, it is no surprise that shoplifting of food finds a place among the crime figures. It is true that in 1818, unlike 1993, there was at least the workhouse as a last resort, but the streetwise young person, then as now, hoped to survive by his own initiative until his luck ran out. The bald boy referred to earlier had stolen bread in 1818. 

Women and Girls

Women and girls featured very seldom in the courts, compared with boys. In May 1819, Ann Jones of Cirencester was found guilty of stealing three yards of lace worth 10/-. She was aged 15, a 'labourer' who was 4'10" tall and could read a little. She went to prison for six weeks. A local woman, Lucy Weaver from Ashchurch, stole 1/6d. worth of lace and an 'Irish cloth'. However, at 27, she was not a young offender.

Did the Young People Re-offend?

One example of corporal punishment failing to reform a boy was that of Edward Stone of North Cerney. Aged 14 at Lent 1817, he had been 'privately whipped' and put in prison for six weeks for stealing a greatcoat. In 1818, then aged 15, he was in court again. He had broken into a barn, stolen 30 fowls, 4 ducks and a drake and a leather halter. This time he received two years in the Gaol, opened in 1792).

However, had he offended again, there would probably have been no third chance. Transportation would have been seen as the only way to deal with such a recalcitrant offender, assuming that his crime did not warrant the death penalty. In 1825, two 15 year-old boys were sentenced to death for house-breaking.


Transportation, made famous by the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834, had been authorised by a Vagrancy Act of Elizabeth I's reign, and in early days the colonies being established in North America received convicted men, with the hope of reforming their lives. After the American War of Independence this avenue was closed. Prisoners were sent to the prison hulks instead, at Greenwich, Woolwich, etc.. Soon they were overflowing, and after 1770 New South Wales, Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen's Land) and, for a short time, Barbados, became the destinations for those convicted of more serious crimes, or re-offenders. 

An example occurs in the 1841 Census for Tewkesbury. John Bell was in Tewkesbury Gaol at the. time of the census, accused of having stolen a loin of mutton. He had been working at a local lace factory, and was then 18 years old. His sentence was seven years in Van Diemen's Land, where. he sailed in 1842. This, however, was not his first offence, for in 1836, when he was 13, he had served fourteen days hard labour for 'wilfully damaging a load of potatoes. ' 

The conditions in the prison hulks at Woolwich were highlighted in a letter to a Bredon family of shoemakers, Isaac Jones. Dated Christmas Day, 1848, it was sent from H.M.S. Warrior. The father, knowing how important it was to secure the future of his sons, appealed to a relative to ensure that his younger son received an apprenticeship. 

'My Dear Son, 

I received your kind letter Nov. 1st. and was very glad to hear from you, yet I thought you had been a long time answering my letter the year before. I really thought you had forgotten me as a father inasmuch I did not receive a letter before. I am really glad to hear that you think about God, and of turning over a new hope...,.that you will grow up in the world a useful member of society, I hope you will and do look to your brother Thomas, and correct his manners and set an example of love and affection before him in yourself, for I hope that none of you will do as I have done, hut be steady, and honest and to keep away from such a place as this, which is a place of great wickedness and no comfort.

I want for you to ask your grandfather Jones to take Thomas and teach him the trade (shoemaking), and I want you to write to me and let me know if he will be kindly disposed, for earnestly beg that he will not cast reflections on any of you, on my downfall or misconduct, but treat you kindly in love and regard as belonging to him. 

And if your grandfather cannot take him, pray ask your uncle Thomas Jones if he can make it possibly convenient, and so in your next letter let me know about this.......l am enjoying very good health by the blessing of Providence..........your affectionate Father.' 

The list of local young men includes: Abel Nicholls (15), a stocking weaver, given seven years in Van Diemen's Land in 1829; George Bennett, a butcher from Twyning, in 1833-34; March 1831, Thomas Fincher (17) from Tewkesbury, who had been a soldier in the 17th. Regiment of Foot, was sent to Van Diemen's Land for seven years. 

In 1836 Henry Holbrook, a labourer, stole a sheep, and was transported for life. We learn that he was 25, had dark hair and dark eyes, full-faced, stout-made, rather dark complexion and 57" tall. Kellow Cheney, in his fascinating book, 'The Victorian Underworld' (1970), dealing mainly with the mid-nineteenth century, remarked that crimes against property were usually treated more severely than crimes against the person. with the exception of actual murder. An intriguing case at Gloucester Assizes in 1818 concerned James Hartshorne, a coal miner from the Forest of Dean. He could read and write (although not a young offender at 26). What do we make of the fact that he was convicted of 'feloniously killing' Robert Ward, but was only sent to prison for three months? How had Ward died? In contrast, George Moore of Broadway (whose conduct in prison was 'very bad') was transported for life in 1818 because he had stolen £2.0s.0d. in notes, plus three one- pound 'provincial bank notes'. 

One wonders about the motives of thirteen year-old William Daws of Cheltenham (46" tall), who in 1818 stole toothpowder and a toothbrush, and four volumes of novels from the shop of Samuel Bettison. He could read and write, and behaved well during his one month in prison. Some of the accused were found 'not guilty' by juries, then as today. Some leniency was shown to children. A 12 year-old who stole a silver spoon was discharged. George Phipps of Shurdington stole some beans, but was only given six hours in prison, to make the point that his conduct was unlawful. 

Some were condemned to death but reprieved, like 16 year-old George Griffin of Cheltenham in 1818. He 'put John Coxwell in bodily fear on the King's highway in Cheltenham and obtained from him against his will 2/6d.' Regency Cheltenham is famous for its elegant buildings and fashionable visitors, but crime on the streets and shop-lifting were also present. The Assizes give fascinating insights into aspects of life after the Napoleonic Wars had ended. 

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