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Extracts from British Economic And Social History 1700-1939 by C P Hill


Law And Order

Another feature of English life in the eighteen century upon which foreigners commented critically was the penal code, the list of punishments imposed for breaches of the law. It was notably savage, and by the standards of a later age absurd as well as barbaric. The absence of an effective police force led the authorities to try to deter law-breakers by harsher penalties, even for relatively trivial offences. So by 1800 some two hundred crimes were punishable by death. They included (besides treason, murder, and attempted murder) forgery, horse-stealing, sheep-stealing, picking pockets, stealing five shillings (25p) from a shop, damaging Westminster Bridge, and impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner. To impose the capital penalty for trivial offences was simply to tempt the offenders to commit murder if they were caught in the act. In fact, in many cases juries refused to convict; and in many more the death-sentence was never carried out, but was commuted to transportation or other lesser punishment. The law was in practice more humane than it appeared to be. But this, as reformers pointed out , only showed how absurd the penal code was.

Transportation, the most usual alternative to the death penalty, had begun in the seventeenth century, when prisoners were sent in batches to Barbados and other American colonies to spend a term of years as "indentured servants" of plantation owners. It provided cheap labour for the colonists, and it was less expensive than maintaining prisons at home. In the later years of the eighteenth century it became for various reasons more difficult to send convicts to America, and Australia, whose coasts had just been explored by Captain Cook, was used instead. In 1787 the first cargo of prisoners, 717 in all, of whom 183 were women, was sent to Botany Bay, and convicts continued to be transported to New South Wales until 1840 and to Van Diemenís Land (Tasmania) until 1852. Although many of the convicts made good in Australia, transportation was a grim business. Conditions on the long voyage, much of it in the tropics, were so bad that it was not uncommon for one in five to die; in Australia their work was often to clear the bush, toiling in chains in the heat of the southern sun.