Friday, 25 February 2011

Analysing the Patriote assemblies

This paper considers the resolutions passed at the large Patriote assemblies held between May and October 1837. Often written in advance, these resolutions can appear repetitive.[1] Nevertheless, they do identify the fundamental political issues in the months leading up to the Rebellions and about the inspirations, rhetoric, political platform, and the measures taken by the Parti Patriote and its supporters. Before plunging into an analysis of the resolutions passed by the assemblies, it is important to place them in their context.

Following the passage of the Ninety-Two Resolutions in February 1834, the metropolitan government appointed Lord Gosford as the new governor of Lower Canada and also established a Royal Commission to consider Patriote grievances. Arriving in Quebec on 23 August 1835, Gosford and Grey and Gipps, his fellow commissioners noted that, in effect, colonial government had broken down. [2] Following a fruitless attempt to conciliation, conflict between the Legislative Council and the Assembly reached new depths when in 1836 the Council blocked a law on education passed by the Assembly. The result was that the Parti Patriote refused to sit in the Assembly and threatened that, unless the Council became an elective body, it would refuse to vote the Civil List.[3] The commissioners finished their enquiry at the end of October 1836 and Grey and Gipps left for England. The various reports of the Royal Commission were finally laid before Parliament on 2 March 1837 and was immediately followed by the rejection of the Ninety-Two Resolutions in Russell’s Ten Resolutions. [4]

News of these resolutions reached Quebec on 10 or 11 April 1837 and created vocal opposition among Patriotes and reformers. Four of Russell’s resolutions were especially difficult for the supporters of the Ninety-Two Resolutions to accept. Resolutions 4, 5, 6 and 7 rejected demands for an elected Legislative Council, refused to grant responsible government, supported the position of the British American Land Company and finally, authorised Gosford to use public monies without the approval of the Assembly. In La Minerve on 13 April and in The Vindicator the following day, there were calls both for agitation following what many saw as the British betrayal and to follow the example of the American colonies. Then, on 20 April, La Minerve announced the calling of a great assembly in the comté de Richelieu.[5]

On 7 May 1837, the first anti-coercive assembly was held at Saint-Ours and it served as the model for the subsequent assemblies.[6] Although there were a large number of assemblies across the province, only the Patriote assemblies benefited from widespread coverage in the radical press especially in La Minerve, The Vindicator, Le Libéral and Le Canadien. I intend to focus exclusively on the Patriote assemblies from Saint-Ours on 7 May through to the apogee of the movement, the Grande assemblée de la Confédération des Six Comtés in late October 1837.[7]

It is important to recognise the immense importance of the resolutions of Saint-Ours.[8] Its condemnation of Russell’s Resolution was typically repeated as the first resolution at the subsequent assemblies. It is generally accompanied by constitutional arguments based on traditional rights and privileges accorded to British subjects of the Crown. Among these, the principle of ‘no taxation without representation’ was mentioned most often. Jealously defending the principle that control of the public monies should lie with the Assembly and arguing that it is the only constitutional means for the people, through their representatives, to exert pressure on an irresponsible government, the Patriotes were particularly angered by Resolution 8. This type of resolution can be regarded as a direct reaction to Russell’s Resolutions and especially to what Patriotes saw as its coercive reaction to the question of appropriations. However, these resolutions did not affect the confidence of Canadian reformers in the British authorities and they decided that further appeals to the British Parliament were both possible and necessary.

The second broad category of resolutions was concrete measures taken to counter the Russell Resolutions and put pressure on the British government to think again. There was widespread support for a boycott on British imports to reduce levels of revenue. However, the assemblies were more divided over the question of smuggling. In this respect, no assembly held on the river north of Montreal apart from those at Malbaie on 25 June supported smuggling as a means of exerting pressure.[9] When the assemblies had voted for the boycott, with the exception of Malbaie and later on 16 July at Deschambault[10], they also elected comités de surveillance for each comté to ensure that the boycott was enforced. It is important to emphasise that there was also widespread support for establishing a convention that brought together members from each comté in the province. Linked to this were calls for support from other colonies and the United States as well as a desire to provide information and education on people’s political rights. The first two types of resolution made up the vast majority of resolutions before 6 August and were reinforced by legal action by the Assembly. This is perhaps better explained by the request from the House of Commons on 3 July 1837 to Queen Victoria to renounce Russell’s Resolution. [11]

The third type of resolution related to long-term grievances and generally restated themes from the Ninety-Two Resolutions. These included the classic themes of the Legislative Council, responsible government, land monopoly by the British American Land Company and the colonial aristocracy. To these were appended new attacks such as on Gosford’s good faith and the bias of the Royal Commission.

The question of seigneurial rights made up the fourth type of resolution. It was the assembly at Sainte-Rose on 11 June that proposed abolishing the seigneurial system with compensation.[12] Then the assemblies at Napierville in Acadie on 12 July and 10 September also called for its abolition.[13] On 6 August, at Saint-François-du-Lac there was an assembly uniquely called to discuss seigneurial tenure or reform of the seigneurial system.[14] The same occurred at Saint-Ignace on 10 September.[15] By contrast, at Vaudreuil[16] on 6 August and Saint-Polycarpe[17] on 15 October, there were explicit calls for abolition. It appears that in the comté de Vaudreuil seigneurial rights was a significant regional issue and all its assemblies called either for their abolition or at least reform. This comté also saw the only resolutions that called for the clergy to keep strictly to spiritual matters and not interfere in more worldly affairs.

The last type of resolution was concerned with establishing a parallel system of justice and also the formation of a force of volunteers and paramilitary organisations. Following his proclamation on 15 June banning further assemblies, Gosford began to dismiss justices of the peace and captains of militia who refused to cooperate with the colonial authorities. Others, who were supporters of the Parti Patriote, resigned.[18] To begin with assemblies were satisfied by denouncing Gosford’s actions but on 10 September at Napierville, the assembly recognised the contribution of those officials who had either been dismissed or resigned. In addition to congratulating them on their patriotism, reformers were informed that they should avoid any business with the ‘unworthy people’ who had accepted Gosford’s new commissions. From the beginning of October 1837, the movement became more threatening. At an assembly in the Deux-Montagnes, its comité permanent established a system of parallel justice on 1 October.[19] For the first time, a comité de comté maintained that its authority had been ‘conferred by the people’, a direct stand against British authority. The same comité recommended that its people should organise and arm themselves by parish under the command of a chosen captain of militia. On 4 October, the Fils de la Liberté in their Address to the young people of America invited Lower Canada to rise up and achieve the sovereign independence of America. [20]

Finally, the Patriote movement reached its peak with the Grande assemblée de la Confédération des Six-Comtés at Saint-Charles on 23-24 October 1837. [21] The 4,000 to 5,000 people present reiterated the resolutions passed in the Deux-Montagnes, discussed the possibility of recourse to arms and while the official resolutions had a pacific appearance, the pompous form of the assembly and also the Adresse de la Confédération des Six-Comtés aux habitants du Canada that borrowed from the preamble of the Declaration of American Independence represented a dangerous precedent for colonial government. [22] Ironically, the largest loyalist assembly was held in Montreal[23] on 23 October and less than a month later the Richelieu valley was embroiled in military action.

Appendix 1: List of assemblies held, May-November 1837

Date

Event

Organisation

Media

May 7

Saint-Ours

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on May 11 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 23-28

May 15

Saint-Laurent

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on May 18 in in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 29-37

May 15

Saint-Marc

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on May 22 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 38-41

May 15

Québec

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on May 23 in The Vindicator; Bernard, pp. 42-46

June 1

Saint-Scholastique

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on June 5 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 47-56

June 1

Saint-Hyacinthe

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on June 8 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 57-61

June 4

Longueuil

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on June 12 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 62-66

June 4

Québec

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on June 8 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 67-77

June 11

Sainte-Rose

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on June 15 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 78-83

June 18

Berthier

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on June 22 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 84-91

June 18

Saint-François-du-Lac

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on June 26 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 92-100

June 23

Saint-Hyacinthe

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on June 29 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 101-104

June 25

La Malbaie

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on June 31 in Le Libéral; Bernard, pp. 105-110

June 26

Saint-Thomas

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on July 3 in Le Canadien; Bernard, pp. 111-116

June 28

Montréal

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on June 30 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 117-121

June 29

Rawdon

Loyalist

Resolutions published on July 14 in Le Populaire; Bernard, pp. 122-125

July 4

Stanbridge

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on July 13 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 126-132

July 6

Montréal

Loyalist

Resolutions published on July 8 in The Montreal Gazette; Bernard, pp. 133-134

July 12

Napierville

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on July 20th in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 135-143

July 16

Deschambault

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on July 24 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 144-147

July 24

Napierville

Loyalist

Resolutions published on August 1 in The Montreal Gazette; Bernard, pp. 148-152

July 25

Trois-Rivières

Loyalist

Resolutions published on July 28 in Le Populaire; Bernard, pp. 153-155

July 26

Yamachiche

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on July 31 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 156-160

July 29

L’Assomption

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on August 3 in La Minerve

July 31

Québec

Loyalist

Resolutions published on August 2 in L’Ami du peuple; Bernard, pp. 167-170

August 4

Aylmer

Loyalist

Resolutions published on August 19 in L’Ami du peuple; Bernard, pp. 171-173

August 6

Yamaska

Loyalist

resolution unique published on August 19 in L’Ami du peuple; Bernard, p. 174

August 6

Saint-Constant

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on August 14 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 175-179

August 6

Saint-François-du-Lac on seignorial tenure

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on August 18th in Le Canadien; Bernard, pp. 180-182

August 6

Vaudreuil

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on August 14 in Le Canadien; Bernard, pp. 183-188

September 10

Saint-Denis

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on September 24 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 189-193

September 10

Napierville

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on September 21 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 194-196

September 10

Saint-Ignace

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on September 21 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 197-201

September 16

Milton

Loyalist

Resolutions published on November 29 in Le Populaire; Bernard, pp. 202-203

September 16

Saint-Antoine

Parti patriote

an account of the country lunch published on September 21 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 204-206

October 1

Permanent committee of Deux-Montagnes

Parti patriote

Resolutions of the 8th sitting published on October 9 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 207-213

October 13

Clarenceville

Loyalist

Resolutions published on November 11 in The Montreal Gazette; Bernard, pp. 223-225

October 15

Saint-Polycarpe

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on October 19 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 226-230

October 23

Montreal at Place d’Armes

Loyalist

Resolutions and addresses published on October 24 and 28 in The Montreal Gazette; Bernard, pp. 231-258

October 23-24

Confederation of the Six Counties in Saint-Charles

Parti patriote

Resolutions and addresses published on October 30 and November 2 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 259-285

November 5

Saint-Athanase

Parti patriote

Resolutions published on November 9 in La Minerve; Bernard, pp. 286-290

November 13

Abbotsford

Loyalist

Resolutions published on November 21 in The Montreal Gazette; Bernard, pp. 291-293

November 20

Sherbrooke

Loyalist

Resolutions published November 2 in The Montreal Gazette; Bernard, pp. 294-298

November 23

Granby

Loyalist

Resolutions published on December 4 in The Morning Courier; Bernard, pp. 299-300

Appendix 2: Analysis of assemblies

This table is based on material found on the Patriotes website.

1. Saint-Ours: 7 May
2. Stanbridge: 4 July
3. Napierville: 12 July
4. Deschambault: 16 July
5. Yamachiche: 26 July
6. L’Assomption: 29 July
7. St-Constant: 6 August
8. St-François-du-lac: 6 August

9. Vaudreuil: 6 August
10. St-Denis: 10 September
11. Napierville: 10 September
12. St-Ignace: 10 September
13. Deux-Montagnes: 1 October
14. St-Polycarpe: 15 October
15. Six Comtés: 23 October

RESOLUTIONS

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

 

Russell Resolutions denounced

X

X

X

X

X

X

 

X

           

7

Denounce attacks on Constitution

X

X

X

X

X

X

 

X

     

X

X

X

10

People misled, broken confidence

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

 

X

         

X

9

Americans as natural allies

X

X

           

X

         

X

4

‘No legislation/taxation without rep’

   

X

 

X

   

X

           

3

Repeal Act of Tenure

                       

X

 

1

Reduce revenues; boycott

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

 

X

           

8

Smuggling

X

X

                         

2

Develop manufactures/commerce

X

X

 

X

X

X

X

 

X

   

X

     

8

Comité de surveillance

X

X

X

 

X

X

X

 

X

           

7

Association patriotique du pays...

X

X

X

 

X

X

X

 

X

         

X

8

Thank friends in London and Toronto

   

X

 

X

X

 

X

   

X

     

5

Attack Legislative Council

 

X

X

 

X

               

X

4

Denounce Gosford

X

X

X

         

X

         

X

5

Petition US Congress to abolish customs

X

                         

1

Not vote subsidies

 

 

X

X

     

X

           

3

Equal citizens without distinction

   

                   

X

X

2

Elected Legislative Council

   

X

X

 

X

X

 

X

   

X

 

X

X

8


[1] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, p. 12.

[2] Filteau, Gérard, Histoire des Patriotes, (L’Aurore), 1975, pp. 161-164.

[3] Greer, Allan, Habitants et Patriotes, (Boréal), 1997, pp. 133-134, Ryerson, Stanley-Bréhaut, Capitalisme et Confédération, (Parti pris), 1978, p. 49.

[4] Ibid, Filteau, Gérard, Histoire des Patriotes, pp. 183, 186.

[5] Leclerc, Félix, ‘1837-1838, dates et événements’, in ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Les Rébellions de 1837-1838. Les patriotes du Bas-Canada dans la mémoire collective et chez les historiens, pp. 92-93.

[6] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 23-28.

[7] See Appendix 2 below.

[8] See above, pp. 297-301.

[9] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 105-110.

[10] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 144-147.

[11] Leclerc, Félix, ‘1837-1838, dates et événements’, in ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Les Rébellions de 1837-1838. Les patriotes du Bas-Canada dans la mémoire collective et chez les historiens, p. 100.

[12] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 78-83

[13] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 135-143, 194-196.

[14] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 180-182.

[15] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 197-202.

[16] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 183-188.

[17] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 226-230.

[18] Ibid, Greer, Allan, Habitants et Patriotes, pp. 200-201.

[19] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 207-213.

[20] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 214-222.

[21] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 259-285.

[22] Ibid, Greer, Allan, Habitants et Patriotes, p. 209; ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 277-285.

[23] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 231-258.

Who were the criminals?

Today we are concerned about ‘organised crime’. In the nineteenth century, contemporaries debated the existence of professional criminals and the more ambiguous ‘criminal classes’, a notion given credence by the collection and publication of statistics. The Report of the Royal Commission on the Rural Constabulary 1839, largely drafted by Edwin Chadwick, attempted to explain crime across England and Wales.[1] Criminality was rooted in the poorer classes, especially those who roamed the country: ‘the prevalent cause of vagrancy was the impatience of steady labour’.[2] Chadwick and his fellow commissioners were either unaware of, or simply ignored the seasonal nature of much nineteenth century employment and the need of many, even urban dwellers, to spend time moving from place to place and from job to job. Poverty and indigence did not lead to crime, the Report insisted. Criminals suffered from two vices: ‘Indolence or the pursuit of easy excitement’.[3] They were drawn to commit crimes by ‘the temptation of the profit of a career of depredation, as compared with the profits of honest and even well paid industry’.[4] For Chadwick, criminals made a rational decision to live by crime because of its attractions.

Chadwick and other reformers identified a criminal group within the working-class that possessed the worst habits of the class as a whole. [5] The issue was one of ‘bad’ habits and vices that were then identified as the causes of crime. The 1834 Select Committee enquiring into drunkenness concluded that the ‘vice’ was declining among the middle- and upper-classes but increasing among the labouring classes with a notable impact on crime.[6]

Employment and good wages led to greater consumption of alcohol that, on occasions, contributed to a greater incidence of violent behaviour. The problem, the Committee concluded, was the poor‘s lack of morality.  ‘Lack of moral training’ was not a new issue in 1834, but it was taken up and emphasised by several educational reformers in the next two decades especially as concern grew about juvenile delinquency. Individuals such as Mary Carpenter, John Wade and James Kay-Shuttleworth argued that proper education would lead to a reduction of crime but that it was not secular education merely involving reading, writing and arithmetic that they wanted. Jelinger Symons explained that

When the heart is depraved, and the tendencies of the child or the man are unusually vicious, there can be little doubt that instruction per se, so far from preventing crime, is accessory to it. [7]

Crime 3

Gustav Doré published in 1872 in the book London, with a text by Blanchard Jerrold

What was needed was Christian and moral education that would explain to the working classes their true station in life. This education had to instil in the young habits of industry. If bad parents or the efforts of ragged schools or Sunday Schools failed to do this, then reformatory schools would have to take over. Jelinger Symons again

There must be a change of habit as well as of mind, and the change of habit mostly needed is from some kind of idleness to some kind of industry. We are dealing with a class whose vocation is labour; and whose vices and virtues are infallibly connected with indolence and industry.[8]

The economic and political instability of the 1830s and especially the 1840s saw people at opposite ends of the political spectrum share increasingly ominous visions of society. Friedrich Engels wrote that

...the incidence of crime has increased with the growth of the working-class population and there is more crime in Britain than in any other country in the world.[9]

Crime was an aspect of the new social war that worsened with every passing year. In the mid-1840s, the Chartist G.W.M. Reynolds published the fictional The Mysteries of London that gave his readers a frightening portrait of a brutalised, savage poor, a truly dangerous class.[10] While in Paris, Reynolds had been impressed by Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris and his serial paralleled Sue’s tale of vice, depravity, and squalor in the Parisian slums with a sociological story contrasting the vice and degradation of London working-class life with the luxury and debaucheries of the hedonistic upper crust.[11] The middle-classes in England readily accepted this vision of their social inferiors if nothing else because the poor looked very different in physique as well as dress. [12]

Between the 1850s and the 1870s, a succession of middle-class commentators, as often as not guided by local policemen penetrated the dark and teeming recesses of working class districts. They then wrote up their exploits for the delight of the reading public as journeys into criminal districts where the inhabitants were best compared with Red Indians or varieties of black ‘savages’. Such literature is at its best in the writings of Henry Mayhew, a reporter for the Morning Chronicle, who incorporated his findings in the massive, four volume London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopaedia of the Conditions and Earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work and those that will not work between 1851 and 1861-1862. Mayhew noted the different physical and mental characteristics of the nomadic street people

There is a greater development of the animal than of the intellectual and moral nature of man.... They are more or less distinguished for their high cheek-bones and protruding jaws -- for their use of a slang language -- for their lax ideas of property -- for their general improvidence -- their repugnance to continuous labour -- their disregard of female honour -- their love of cruelty -- their pugnacity -- and their utter want of religion.[13]

In short these ‘exotic people’ lacked all of the virtues that respectable middle-class Victorian society held dear. Lurking among these people there was a separate ‘class’ of thieves who were mainly young, idle and vagrant and who enjoyed the literature that glorified pirates and robbers. In the final volume of London Labour, first published in 1861-1862, Mayhew concentrated on ‘the Non-Workers, or in other words, the Dangerous Classes of the Metropolis’. Mayhew himself set out to define crime and the ‘criminal classes’. Crime, he argued, was the breaking of social laws in the same way that sin and vice broke religious and moral laws.[14]

From the middle of the century, many commentators confidently maintained that crime was being checked. There remained, however, an irredeemable, residuum that, with the end of transportation, could no longer be shipped out of the country. This group was increasingly called the criminal class: the backbone of this class was those defined by Mayhew as ‘professional’ and by legislators as ‘habitual’ criminals. The Times commented in a leading article in 1870 that these men

Are more alien from the rest of the community than a hostile army, for they have no idea of joining the ranks of industrious labour either here or elsewhere. The civilised world is simply a carcass on which they prey, and London above all, is to them a place to sack.[15]

In the late 1860s, James Greenwood, a journalist, noted that many juveniles resorted to crime because of hunger, yet in general habitual criminals were rarely perceived as bring brought to crime by poverty.[16] Bad, uncaring parents, drink, the corrupt literature that glamorised offenders and the general lack of moral fibre continued to be wheeled out as the causes of crime. The problem that contemporaries had was to explain the persistence of crime in spite of the advantages and opportunities provided by the advance of civilisation and the expansion of the mid-century panacea of education. The old stand-bys of poor parenting, corrupting literature etc. were combined with the mixing of first-time offenders with habitual offenders in prisons, concepts of hereditary and ideas drawn from the development of medical science.[17]

Early in the century, phrenologists[18] had visited prisons to make case studies of convicts in the belief that inordinate mental faculties led to crime. A visitor to Newgate prison in the 1830s said the prisoners had ‘animal faces’. From 1850, doctors like James Thompson, who worked in Perth prison, began collecting biological analyses of convicts, thus providing an academic veneer to these perceptions of ‘animal propensities’ through empirical research.

Crime 4

The work of Charles Booth in the 1880s and 1890s, with its exposure of bad housing and inadequate diet, encouraged a perception of the residuum as the product of the inevitable workings of social Darwinism. Arnold White, who in the 1900s was the central figure in warning the public about the degeneration of the British race, first expressed his concerns in the 1880s.[19] The fundamental problem was not class but ‘degeneracy’ and hereditary and urban environment were the keys to understanding. Degeneracy was inherited or could be acquired when an individual adopted and deliberately persisted in a life of crime. The problem was made worse by the highly concentrated nature of cities that led to the ‘creation of a large degenerate caste’.[20]

The key elements about the perceptions of the criminal class were, first, that the criminal class was perceived as overwhelmingly male; and secondly, the perceptions were those of middle-class commentators who were speaking to a predominantly, though not exclusively, middle-class and ‘respectable’ audience. There were occasional references to women committing crimes, even to them being afflicted by criminal ‘diseases’, but in general, they were seen as accessories in crime.[21] There was, however, a parallel between perceptions of the male criminal and the female prostitute. Prostitution was not in itself a criminal offence, but there was growing concern about ‘the Great Social Evil’ and from 1850 determined attempts at control. Dr William Acton‘s Prostitution, Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects, in London and Other Large Cities did not see prostitution as the slippery slope of damnation and noted that young women often became prostitutes only for a short while.  But there are important parallels between his list of the causes of prostitution and the causes of crime among the criminal and/or dangerous classes

Natural desire. Natural sinfulness. The preferment of indolent ease to labour. Vicious inclinations strengthened and ingrained by early neglect, or evil training, bad associates, and an indecent mode of life. Necessity, imbued by the inability to obtain a living by honest means consequent on a fall from virtue. Extreme poverty. To this blacklist must be added love of drink, love of dress, love of amusement.[22]

Contemporaries across much of Europe and North America, as well at in Britain, were convinced that the crux of the question of what caused crime was the existence of a separate criminal class. This view was reinforced by prevailing social and scientific attitudes and by the publication of sensationalist literature and through factual reporting in the burgeoning popular press. There were individuals and groups who were ‘professional criminals’ and who made a significant part of their living from crime but whether there was a ‘criminal class’ is far more debatable. The use of ‘class’ implies a larger number and a more homogeneous group than actually existed. Contemporaries drew a dubious parallel, grounded in fear and a slanted reading of criminal statistics between offenders who came largely from the working class and the location of the causes of crime within what were generally perceived as the vices of this class.

In fact, there were perhaps no more than 4,000 ‘habitual criminals’ in the 1870s and the scale of the problem was considerably less than the middle-classes believed. Most thefts and most crimes of violence were not the work of professional criminals. Court records suggest that the overwhelming majority of thefts that were reported and prosecuted were opportunist and petty. Most incidents of violence involved people who were either related or who were known to each other. Evidence from the Black Country and London suggests that no clear distinction can be made between a dishonest criminal class and a poor, but honest, working class.[23] The working-classes were more likely to be victims of crime in inner city areas than members of the middle-classes. Despite this, belief in a criminal class persisted and was convenient for insisting that most crime was something committed on law-abiding citizens by an alien and ‘dangerous’ group and, since no reformation was possible, justified the use of draconian punishment.


[1] Philips, David, ‘Three “moral entrepreneurs” and the creation of a “criminal class” in England, c.1790s-1840s’, Crime, Histoire et Sociétés, Vol. 7, (2003), pp. 79-107 considers Colquhoun, Chadwick and Miles. See also, Ekelund, Robert B. and Dorton, Cheryl, ‘Criminal justice institutions as a common pool: the 19th century analysis of Edwin Chadwick’, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Vol. 50, (3), (2003), pp. 271-294.

[2] First Report of the Commissioners appointed to enquire into the Best Means of Establishing an Efficient Constabulary Force in the Counties of England and Wales, (W. Clowes and Son), 1839, p. 63

[3] Ibid, First Report of the Commissioners appointed to enquire into the Best Means of Establishing an Efficient Constabulary Force in the Counties of England and Wales, p. 64.

[4] Ibid, First Report of the Commissioners appointed to enquire into the Best Means of Establishing an Efficient Constabulary Force in the Counties of England and Wales, p. 128.

[5] The problems involved in defining a ‘criminal class’ are explored in Bailey, V., ‘The fabrication of deviance: ‘dangerous classes’ and ‘criminal classes’ in Victorian England’, in Rule J. and Malcolmson, R., (eds.), Protest and survival: the historical experience; essays for E.P. Thompson, (Merlin Press), 1993, pp. 221-256, McGowen, Randall, ‘Getting to Know the Criminal Class in Nineteenth-Century England,’ Nineteenth-Century Contexts, Vol. 14, (1990), pp. 33-54, Taylor, David, ‘Beyond the bounds of respectable society: The “dangerous classes” in Victorian and Edwardian England’, in Rowbotham, Judith and Stevenson, Kim, (eds.), Criminal conversations : Victorian crimes, social panic, and moral outrage (Ohio State University Press), 2005, pp. 3-22, Wiener, M., Reconstructing the criminal: culture, law and policy, 1830-1914, (Cambridge University Press), 1991 and Men of blood: violence, manliness and criminal justice in Victorian England, (Cambridge University Press), 2004. See also, Carpenter, Mary, Reformatory schools for the children of the perishing and dangerous classes and for juvenile offenders, (C. Gilpin), 1851 and Adshead, Joseph, ‘On juvenile criminals, reformatories, and the means of rendering the perishing and dangerous classes serviceable to the state’, Transactions of the Manchester Statistical Society, (1855-6), pp. 67-122.

[6] Speech by James Silk Buckingham, Evidence on Drunkenness presented to the House of Commons, (Benjamin Bagster), 1834, pp. 2-24.

[7] Symons, Jelinger C., ‘Special Report on Reformatories in Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Monmouthshire and in Wales’, printed in the Minutes of the Parliamentary Committee on Education, Parliamentary Papers, 1857-58, p. 236.

[8] Ibid, Symons, Jelinger C., ‘Special Report on Reformatories in Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Monmouthshire and in Wales’, p. 238.

[9] Engels, F., The Condition of the Working-class in England, 1844, translated, with foreword by V. Kiernan, (Penguin), 1987, p. 146.

[10] The Mysteries of London, a penny dreadful was begun by Reynolds in 1844 and he the first two series of this long-running narrative of life in mid-nineteenth century London. Thomas Miller wrote the third series and Edward L. Blanchard the fourth series of this immensely popular title. Instalments were published weekly with a single illustration and eight pages of text printed in double columns and later bound together as single volumes. See, Carver, S.J., ‘The wrongs and crimes of the poor: the urban underworld of The Mysteries of London in context’, in Humpherys, Anne and James, Louis, (eds.), G.W.M. Reynolds: nineteenth-century fiction, politics, and the press, (Ashgate), 2008, 149-162.

[11] Les Mystères de Paris, a feulliton or French newspaper serial, was one of the most influential novels of the nineteenth century. While it is little known today, when it first ran as a weekly serial it outsold Alexandre Dumas pere’s The Count of Monte Cristo, and was praised by Victor Hugo, who called its author, Eugène Sue, the ‘Dickens of Paris.’ An English translation was published in three volumes in 1844. See, Maxwell, Richard, ‘G.M. Reynolds, Dickens and the Mysteries of London’, Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 32, (2), (1977), pp. 188-213.

[12] Angelo, Michael, Penny Dreadfuls and Other Victorian Horrors, (Jupiter), 1977, pp. 80-81. See also, Maxwell, Richard, The Mysteries of Paris and London, (University of Virginia Press), 1992, pp. 1-58.

[13] Ibid, Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor: The Condition and Earnings of Those that will work, cannot work, and will not work, Vol. I, p. 3. See also, Beier, A.L., ‘Identity, Language, and Resistance in the Making of the Victorian “Criminal Class”: Mayhew’s Convict Revisited’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 44, (2005), pp. 499-515 and Englander, David, ‘Henry Mayhew and the Criminal Classes of Victorian England: The Case Reopened’, Criminal Justice History, Vol. 17, (2002), pp. 87-108.

[14] See also, Henry Mayhew and Binny, John, The criminal prisons of London, and scenes of prison life, (Griffin, Bohn, and Co.), 1862, Englander, David, ‘Henry Mayhew and the Criminal Classes of Victorian England: The Case Reopened’, Criminal Justice History, Vol. 17, (2002), pp. 87-108 and Beier, A.L., ‘Identity, Language, and Resistance in the Making of the Victorian “Criminal Class”: Mayhew’s Convict Revisited’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 44, (2005), pp. 499-515.

[15] The Times 29 March 1870, cit, ibid, Emsley, Clive, Crime and Society in England 1750-1900, p. 73.

[16] See, Greenwood, James, The Seven Curses of London, (Fields, Osgood, & Co.), 1869.

[17] Welshman, John, Underclass: The History of the Excluded, 1880-2000, (Continuum), 2007 examines later developments.

[18] Phrenology developed in the early-nineteenth century. It was based on ‘feeling’ the bumps on a person’s skull. By doing this, phrenologists believed they could draw conclusions about the individual’s personality. See, Stack, David, Queen Victoria’s Skull: George Combe and the Mid-Victorian Minds, (Continuum), 2008, Parssinen, T.M., ‘Popular science and society: the phrenology movement in early Victorian Britain’, Journal of Social History, Vol. 8, (1974), pp. 1-20, Tomlinson, Stephen, ‘Phrenology, education and the politics of human nature: the thought and influence of George Combe’, History of Education, Vol. 26, (1997), pp. 1-22 and Van Wyhe, John, ‘Was Phrenology a Reform Science? Towards a New Generalization for Phrenology’, History of Science, Vol. 42, (2004), pp. 313-331.

[19] See, White, Arnold, The Destitute Alien in Great Britain: A Series of Papers Dealing with the Subject of Foreign Pauper Immigration, (Charles Scribner’s Sons), 1892 and Efficiency and Empire, (Methuen & Co.), 1901.

[20] Morrison, W.D., ‘The Increase in Crime’, The Twentieth Century, Vol. 31, (1892), p. 957, cit, ibid, Emsley, Clive, Crime and Society in England 1750-1900, p. 78.

[21] Zedner, L., Women, Crime and Custody in Victorian England, (Oxford University Press), 1991, pp. 51-92.

[22] Acton, William, Prostitution, (Chirchill), 1857, rep., (Praeger), 1969, p. 118.

[23] Philip, D., Crime and Authority in Victorian England: The Black Country 1835-60, (Croom Helm), 1977, pp. 13-21, 126-129, 287-288.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Assembly of Saint-Ours, 7 May 1837

The first assembly protesting about both Russell’s Resolution and the colonial authorities took place at Saint-Ours on 7 May 1837. Its importance lies in the resolutions that it passed and because it provided a model for subsequent Patriote assemblies. The assembly was a direct consequence of Russell’s Resolutions introduced into the House of Commons when the Whig government rejected the Ninety-Two Resolutions. They allowed the colonial government to authorise taxation without the approval of the Assembly. Russell’s Resolutions were approved by both Whigs and Conservatives in the House of Commons though there was opposition from radicals especially Hume, Roebuck and O’Connell.[1] News of the adoption of these resolutions reached Quebec around 10 April and its effect was explosive. La Minerve and The Vindicator encouraged the people to revolt: The Vindicator called for ‘Agitation! Agitation!’

On 20 April, La Minerve announced the calling of an assembly in the comté de Richelieu. It was announced a second time a week before it was well by a group of professionnals, farmers and artisans influential in the parishes of Saint-Charles, Saint-Denis and Saint-Ours.[2] 1,200 electors from all the comtés attended the first assembly. Côme-Séraphin Cherrier de Saint-Denis chaired the assembly while J.P. Boucher de Belleville, schoolteacher from Saint-Charles a journalist on the Écho du Pays, acted as secretary.[3] Speeches were made by Dr. Wolfred Nelson, from Saint-Denis, Charles-Olivier Côté, deputy for Lacadie and Siméon Marchesseault, another schoolteacher from Saint-Charles. Twelve resolutions, prepared by the Comité central et permanent des patriotes,[4] were passed and are best known as the Déclaration de Saint-Ours.[5] The first six resolutions denounced the Russell Resolutions and violations of the 1791 Constitution and the rights of the people by an oppressive government that inspired only loathing and contempt.[6] Resolution seven voiced the desire for resistance and revolt that existed among the Patriotes. Resolutions eight and nine were associated with the principle of ‘No taxation without representation’: the Patriotes decided not to buy British imports or pay taxes to the government on other imported goods and to put pressure on the government by smuggling goods.[7] Resolution nine announced an assembly of the six comtés at Saint-Charles advocated a patriotic association, devised by several comtés, to ensure that all article bought were either manufactured in the colony or were the product of smuggling. It also nominated yen people to a committee that would communicate with committees in the other comtés.[8] The tenth resolution proclaimed Papineau, who did not attend this first assembly, as the only leader of the Patriotes.[9] Finally, resolutions eleven and twelve thanked the reforms in England and Upper Canada who supported their cause and criticised those Patriotes who had turned from the movement.[10]

The Patriote press grouped these assemblies and the various patriotic reunions, almost thirty in the course of the summer and early autumn of 1837, under the title of ‘La voix du peuple’.[11] In its report of the assembly at Saint-Ours, La Minerve emphasised the importance of the twelfth resolution commenting that

Douze cents personnes ont pris part à ses procédés marqués au coin de la vigueur, de la fermeté et du désir d’obtenir justice. [12]

The Vindicator was more discrete providing only a brief summary of the resolutions[13]. Le Canadien thought the assembly was strange, absurd and impractical while the loyalist press avoided the subject. Later, conservative opinion viewed the assemblies as an unrealistic fantasy while others consider the impact of the Déclaration de Saint-Ours to be as important as the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme de la France in 1789.[14] The assembly of Saint-Ours is important not as a parliamentary manifesto such as the Ninety-Two Resolutions but as an appeal to the people[15] and within a week this had spread throughout the colony.[16]

In the collective memory of the rebellions of 1837-1838, the Assemblée de Saint-Ours holds an important position. It had an immense influence on the events that led up to the risings. It was also the first anti-coercive assembly. Planned by the Comité Central et Permanent, it was a response to Russell’s Resolutions recently sent from London and more than 1,200 Patriotes attended. The majority came from the comté de Richelieu but there was also a considerable number of participants from the neighbouring comtés, several of whom arrived on the steamer Le cygne that had lowered its fares for the occasion. The assembly began at 2 p.m., at the end of Vespers.[17] Speeches, which were both energetic and confrontational, were made by Wolfred Nelson, C-O Côté and S Marchesseau.[18] These were, according to Greer, of a revolutionary nature made in the context of political crisis.[19] This assembly is recognised as having provided the tone for the radicalisation of Patriote demands and was the model for the assemblies that followed. Its twelve resolutions were, in many respects revisited the Ninety-Two Resolutions with the difference that London was now considered not as an ally but an adversary clearly showing the end of the long-term Patriote strategy of co-operation with the metropolis. For Filteau, the resolutions of Saint-Ours were the equivalent of a ‘Declaration of French Canadian rights’.[20]

Appendix: The Declaration of Saint-Ours

Résolu:

Que nous avons vu avec les sentiments de la plus vive indignation les résolutions proposées à l’adoption de la chambre des communes, le 6 Mars dernier, résolutions dont l’effet nécessaire est de nous enlever toute garantie de liberté et de bon gouvernement pour l’avenir de cette province.

Que l’adoption de ces résolutions sera une violation flagrante de la part des communes et du gouvernement qui les a proposées, de la Capitulation, des traités et des actes constitutionnels qui ont été octroyés au pays. Que ces actes, ces traités, portant des obligations réciproques, savoir de notre part, amour et obéissance, de la part de l’Angleterre, protection et garantie de liberté, seraient virtuellement annulés par la violation des promesses de l’une des parties contractantes.

Que dans ces circonstances, nous ne pourrions regarder le gouvernement qui aurait recours à l’injustice, à la force et à une violation du contrat social, que comme un pouvoir oppresseur, un gouvernement de force, pour lequel la mesure de notre soumission ne devrait être désormais que la mesure de notre force numérique, jointe aux sympathies que nous nous trouverons ailleurs...

Que nous nions au Parlement anglais le droit de législater sur les affaires intérieures de cette colonie, contre notre consentement et sans notre participation et nos demandes, comme le non-exercice de ce droit par l’Angleterre nous a été garanti par la Constitution et reconnu par la métropole lorsqu’elle a craint que nous n’acceptassions les offres de liberté et d’indépendance que nous ferait la république voisine. Qu’en conséquence, nous regardons comme nuls et non-avenus l’acte du commerce du Canada, l’acte qui incorpore la société dite Compagnie des Terres, et enfin l’acte qui sera sans doute basé sur les résolutions qui viennent d’être adoptées par les Communes.

Que ne nous regardant plus liés que par la force au gouvernement anglais, nous lui serons soumis comme à un gouvernement de force, attendant de Dieu, de notre bon droit et des circonstances un sort meilleur, les bienfaits de la liberté et un gouvernement plus juste. Que cependant, comme notre argent public dont en ose disposer sans aucun contrôle le gouvernement métropolitain, va devenir entre ses mains un nouveau moyen de pression contre nous, et que nous regardons comme notre devoir, comme de notre honneur de résister par tous les moyens actuellement en notre possession à un pouvoir tyrannique; pour diminuer autant qu’il est en nous, ces moyens d’oppression, nous résolvons:

Que nous nous abstiendrons, autant qu’il sera en notre pouvoir, de consommer les articles importés, particulièrement ceux qui paient des droits plus élevés, tels que le thé, le tabac, les vins, le rhum, etc. Que nous consommerons de préférence, les produits manufacturés en ce pays; que nous regarderons comme bien méritant de la patrie quiconque établira des manufactures de soie, de draps, de toiles, soit de sucre, de spiritueux, etc. Que considérant l’acte du commerce comme non avenu, nous regarderons comme très licite, le commerce désigné sous le nom de contrebande; jugerons ce trafic très honorable; tâcherons de le favoriser de tout notre pouvoir, regardant ceux qui s’y livreront comme méritant bien du pays, et comme infâme quiconque se porterait dénonciateur contre eux.

Que pour rendre ces résolutions plus efficaces, cette assemblée est d’avis qu’on devrait faire dans le pays une association patriotique dont le centre serait à Québec ou à Montréal, dans le but de s’engager à ne consommer, autant qu’il est en nous, que des produits manufacturés en ce pays, ou importés ici sans avoir payé de droits... Que pour opérer plus efficacement la régénération de ce pays, il convient, à l’exemple de l’Irlande, de se rallier tous autour d’un homme. Que cet homme, Dieu l’a marqué comme O’Connell pour être le chef politique, le régénérateur d’un peuple. Qu’il lui a donné pour cela une force de pensée et de parole qui n’est pas surpassée; une haine de l’opression, un amour du pays, qu’aucune promesse, aucune menace du pouvoir ne peut fausser. Que cet homme déjà désigné par le pays: est L.J. Papineau. Cette assemblée, considérant les heureux résultats obtenus en Irlande du tribut appelé tribut O’Connell, est d’avis qu’un semblable tribut appelé tribut Papineau devrait exister en ce pays. Les comités de l’Association contre l’importation seraient chargés de le prélever.


[1] Rumilly, Robert, Papineau et son temps, (Fides), 1977, p. 423.

[2] Ibid, Ouellet, Fernand, Histoire économique et sociale du Québec, 1760–1850: structures et conjuncture, pp. 434-435.

[3] Ibid, Filteau, Gerard, Histoire des patriotes, 1980, p. 211.

[4] Latouche, Daniel, Le Manuel de la parole, Vol. 1, (Editions du Boreal), 1977, document 15

[5] Ibid, Filteau, Gerard, Histoire des patriotes, p. 211.

[6] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 23-25.

[7] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, p. 26.

[8] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, p. 27.

[9] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, p. 27.

[10] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, p. 28.

[11] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, p. 18, The Vindicator, 12 May 1837.

[12] La Minerve, 11 May 1837.

[13] The Vindicator, 12 May 1837.

[14] Ibid, Filteau, Gerard, Histoire des patriotes, p. 218.

[15] Ibid, Latouche, Daniel, Le Manuel de la parole, document 15.

[16] Ibid, Filteau, Gerard, Histoire des patriotes, p. 218.

[17] Ibid, Couillard, Després, Armand, Histoire de la famille et de la seigneurie de Saint-Ours 2ième partie 1785-1916, (Impr. de l'Institution des sourds-muets), 1917, p. 232.

[18] Ibid, Filteau, Gerard, Histoire des patriotes, p. 83.

[19] Ibid, Greer, Allan, The patriots and the people, p. 137

[20] Ibid, Filteau, Gerard, Histoire des patriotes, p. 87.

Crime and the courts

There has been an unprecedented growth of academic research and publications in the history of crime.[1] Until recently, most books dealing with crime tended to be ‘popular’ rather than narrowly ‘academic’ in character and concentrated on particular, notorious events or personalities and many depended on largely anecdotal and literary sources. Since the 1970s, historians have increasingly turned their attention to crime and how former societies understood it and sought to deal with it.

Some historians have made a distinction between ‘real crime’ such as murder, rape and theft and ‘social crime’ or offences that had a degree of community acceptance or that can be linked with social protest.[2] John Rule has suggested that it is useful to think of two main types of social crime during the late-eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century. First, some crimes drew society’s support because of their protest nature. In this category he includes rioting over the high cost of food, over enclosures, recruiting for the army or navy or over turnpike tolls.[3] Secondly, some crimes were not regarded as criminal by those who committed them. ‘Perks’ or the appropriation of things from the workplace became increasingly the object of criminal prosecution by employers in the nineteenth century. Poaching fell into the same category.[4] The poor did not look upon it as a crime

...they almost universally look upon game, when in a wild state, as not being the property of any individual. [5]

Crime 1

Bow Street court c1910

The degree to which the state criminalises certain types of behaviour and not others has always been a matter of debate. The traditional view is that humanitarian reformers like Sir Samuel Romilly and Sir James Mackintosh gradually created awareness both inside and outside Parliament that England’s Bloody Code needed drastic revision. While such men stressed the barbarity of the legal code, other reformers like John Howard paved the way for improvement in the penal system. This picture fitted well with the Whig idea of history as progress and implied a logic that neglects the economic, social and political context for change.

Crime 2

Christabel Pankhurst, Mrs Pankhurst and Flora Drummond at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, 1913

Eighteenth century Parliaments tended to pass laws to deal with local problems but gradually government saw crime in its national context. Sir Robert Peel‘s reorganisation of the criminal law during the 1820s was symptomatic of this change. Yet national laws still had to be implemented at local level by local people, whose perceptions were not always the same as those in Parliament. The law may have been seen as impartial but, it had to be interpreted and enforced by local agents such as the magistracy who had their own assumptions, interests and prejudices and who could, on occasions, be at odds with each other. [6]

Offenders in England and Wales were brought before three main kinds of court during the nineteenth century.[7] Before the appointment of professional prosecutors in the late-nineteenth century, criminal cases were initiated by complaints from private citizens, usually the victims, to local magistrates. Their role was to assess the allegations and, if proceedings seemed warranted, to choose the appropriate course of action. Criminal prosecution was rather more like civil litigation. Private prosecution was expensive and only wealthy people could afford to pay for a lengthy court trial. The cost of the litigation meant that for the masses of the poor recourse to criminal justice was not possible and often they ‘took the law into their own hands’.

The main developments during the nineteenth century were the decline in private prosecution and the extension of use of the courts by the working class. The criminal justice system, in particular the magistrates courts, moved into the working-class areas of the expanding cities and was part of the same dynamic that resulted in the formation of the modern police. The increasing use of the magistrates’ courts, known, appropriately, as police courts, by the masses was a key feature of these developments. The main vehicle of this change was the extension of access to the courts for the masses through the expansion of summary jurisdiction. The percentage of offences in England and Wales tried in front of lay magistrates rose from 66 percent in 1857 to 80 percent by 1911. Misdemeanours, the least serious offences such as drunkenness, soliciting, and vagrancy were dealt with summarily by magistrates sitting alone or in pairs on the bench, although those accused were allowed to employ a defence counsel. These summary powers were extended during the nineteenth century to include some cases of petty larceny and assault with the passage of the Juvenile Offenders Acts in 1847 and 1850 and the Criminal Justice Acts of 1855 and 1879.[8] At the beginning of the nineteenth century, individual magistrates frequently tried summary offences in their own home but this became less common by the 1830s and was abolished in 1848 by the Summary Jurisdiction Act. After this, all summary trials took place at formally constituted Petty Sessions, before at least two magistrates. Petty Sessional courts had since the eighteenth century but in 1828, legislation had tightened up procedures and carefully defined Petty Sessional divisions within counties. In the larger towns and cities, stipendiary or paid magistrates, acting in what were increasingly referred to as ‘police courts‘ took on more and more of the burdens of summary justice.[9] Summary jurisdiction benefitted the working-classed by making access to the courts quick and cheap but also entailed ‘handing over’ to the police and increasingly middle-class magistrates by the masses of the right to sort out their conflicts.

When the offence appeared more serious, the magistrate drafted a bill of indictment for a grand jury which, if satisfied that there was a case to answer, sent it for trial by jury in one of two venues.[10] More serious offences or felonies were prosecuted on indictment and were heard at Quarter Sessions that met four times a year in the county town and in those boroughs where the right for a borough session was included in its charter. These courts were held before a bench of county justices or magistrates appointed by a borough corporation, with a jury. Quarter Sessions were regarded as consistently poor throughout the nineteenth century due to failure by chairmen, who did not have to be legally qualified, to take proper note of evidence, often displaying open hostility to prisoners and the severity of sentences compared to the Assizes.

The most serious offences were tried before professional circuit judges and juries at Assizes that generally sat twice a year. Before 1842, when legislation assigned all capital offences and those with life imprisonment for the first offence to the Assizes, the line between Assize and Quarter Sessions cases was rather blurred. It has been estimated that in the early-nineteenth century, trials lasted about 20 minutes with Assizes hearing 20-30 cases a day. Traditionally, English felony trials consisted of a relatively unstructured exchange between the victim of the felony or a hired prosecutor and the accused generally appearing without a lawyer.[11] In cases of high treason, the right to make a defence had been established in 1696 [12] but it was not until 1836 that the Prisoners’ Counsel Act recognised the defendant’s right to legal counsel in felony trials and lifted many restrictions on the activities of defence lawyers.[13] This recognised the growing practice, which had developed during the previous century, of judges allowing counsel to examine witnesses on the defendant’s behalf.[14] In the early-nineteenth century, there were two assizes per year held in the major county towns of most counties at Lent and during the summer. Emergencies, such as food riots or other types of public disorder, could lead to a special assize being called. The metropolitan equivalent of the assizes was the court at the Old Bailey that, by the 1750s, held eight sessions a year. In 1834, it was enlarged and re-housed in the new Central Criminal Court.[15]

The King’s or Queen’s Bench was the monarch’s personal court concerned with protecting the interests of the Crown. Cases could be referred to it where it was believed that a fair hearing in a particular locality was impossible. It was also a court of review for magistrates, who could ask it to rule on points of law. Judges at the Assizes normally consulted their colleagues on points of law but, in 1848, the Court for Crown Cases Reserved was set up for this. During the nineteenth century, there was no appeals procedure or court of appeals. A convicted criminal’s only hope was the Royal Pardon, in practice delegated to the Home Secretary. A Court of Criminal Appeal was finally established in 1907.[16]

Magistrates and judges were not the only agents of the law who were called upon to interpret the law. The nineteenth century saw the creation of a new police force in Britain. The police had some discretion in identifying behaviour as criminal or not and in deciding what action to take. It was largely victimless crimes that were open to such discretion: drunkenness, prostitution, street gaming and especially Sunday street-selling.


[1] Emsley, C., Crime and Society in England 1750-1900, 4th ed., (Longman), 2010 is the most recent general text and should be read in conjunction with his Policing and its Context 1750-1870, (Macmillan), 1983 and ‘Crime in Nineteenth Century Britain’, History Today, Vol. 38, (4), (1988), pp. 40-46, Gattrell, V., ‘Crime, authority and the policeman-state‘, in Thompson, F.M.L., (ed.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950: Vol. 3 Social Agencies and Institutions, (Cambridge University Press), 1900, pp. 243-310 and the older study by Tobias, J.J., Crime and Industrial Society in the Nineteenth Century, (Batsford), 1967. See also, Taylor, David, Crime, policing and punishment in England, 1750-1914, (Macmillan), 1998, and McLynn, Frank J., Crime and punishment in eighteenth-century England, (Routledge), 1989.

[2] Taylor, H., ‘Rationing Crime: The Political Economy of Criminal Statistics since the 1850s’, Economic History Review, Vol. 51, (1998), pp. 569-590 and Sindall, R.S., ‘The criminal statistics of nineteenth-century cities: a new approach’, Urban History, Vol. 13, (1986), pp. 28-36 consider the problem of crime statistics.

[3] Shakesheff, T., Rural conflict, crime and protest: Herefordshire, 1800 to 1860, (Boydell), 2003, pp. 78-112, 141-175 provides a good local study on this issue.

[4] Osborne, Harvey and Winstanley, Michael J., ‘Rural and Urban Poaching in Victorian England’, Rural History, Vol. 17, (2006), pp. 187-212 and Hopkins, H., The Long Affray: the poaching wars, 1760-1914, (Secker and Warburg), 1985.

[5] A Bedfordshire JP to the Select Committee on Criminal Commitments and Convictions, Parliamentary Papers 1826-7, Vol. 6, p. 34.

[6] Zangerl, C.H.E., ‘The Social Composition of the County Magistracy in England and Wales, 1831-1887’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 11, (1971), pp. 113-125, Philips, D., ‘The Black Country Magistracy 1835-1860’, Midland History, Vol. 3, (1975), pp. 161-190 and Swift, R., ‘The English Urban Magistracy and the Administration of Justice during the early Nineteenth Century: Wolberhampton 1815-1860’, Midland History, Vol. 17, (1992), pp. 75-92.

[7] Cottu, Charles, On the Administration of Criminal Justice in England: and the Spirit of the English Government, (R. Stevens), 1822 provides a contemporary view. Bentley, D.J., English Criminal Courts in the Nineteenth Century, (Continuum), 1998 and Langbein, John H., The Origins of the Adversary Criminal Trial, (Oxford University Press), 2003. See also, King, Peter, Crime, Justice and Discretion in England, 1740-1820, (Cambridge University Press), 2000 and Cornish William, Anderson J. Stuart, Cocks Ray, Lobban Michael, Polden Patrick and Smith, Keith, (eds.), The Oxford History of the Laws of England, Volumes XI, XII and XIII, 1820-1914, (Oxford University Press), 2010, Vol. XI for detailed discussion of the development of the criminal justice system.

[8] The Juvenile Offenders Act of 1847 permitted summary trial for larceny by offenders aged under 14. This was raised to 16 in 1850. The Criminal Justice Act of 1855 extended summary jurisdiction with the consent of the accused to all cases of simple larceny.

[9] Davis, J., ‘A poor man’s system of justice: The London police courts in the second half of the nineteenth century’, Historical Journal¸Vol. 27, (2), (1984), pp. 309-335.

[10] Grand juries met to assess the indictments and decide whether there was sufficient evidence to try the case before a trial jury. At this point prosecutors and their witnesses, but not defendants, could testify. Those cases for which a grand jury believed the evidence was sufficient to warrant a trial were approved as ‘true bills’; those rejected were labelled ‘ignoramus’ or ‘not found’ and the case was dropped. There were repeated calls throughout the nineteenth century for the abolition of the grand jury but it was not until 1933 that England abandoned them in favour of a committal procedure. See, Hostettler, John, The Politics of Criminal Law Reform in the Nineteenth Century, (Barry Rose Law Publishers), 1992, pp. 150-154 and The Criminal Jury Old and New: Jury power from early times to the present day, (Waterside Press), 2004, pp. 109-125.

[11] Although victims could hire a lawyer to present their case before the courts but in practice few did so. In most felony trials, the judges were the only participants with any legal training. Consequently, they dominated the courtroom and orchestrated the brief confrontation between the accused and the victim that lay at the heart of the trial.

[12] See, Shapiro, Alexander H., ‘Political Theory and the Growth of Defensive Safeguards in Criminal Procedure: The Origins of the Treason Trials Act of 1696’, Law & History Review, Vol. 11, (2), (1993), pp. 215-255.

[13] Beattie, J.M., ‘Scales of Justice: Defense Counsel and the English Criminal Trial in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, Law & History Review, Vol. 9, (2), (1991), pp. 221-267 examines the development of defence in felony cases.

[14] Langbein, John H., ‘The Prosecutorial Origins of Defence Counsel in the Eighteenth Century: The Appearance of Solicitors’, Cambridge Law Journal, Vol. 58, (1999), pp. 314-365.

[15] May, Allyson M., The Bar and the Old Bailey, 1750-1850, (University of North Carolina Press), 2003.

[16] In Scotland, the nineteenth century justice system consisted of two courts, the Sherrif Court and the High Court (based in Edinburgh). Both of these courts travelled on a circuit to different regional locations where cases would be tried. The most common crimes to be tried in the Sherrif Court were theft and assault while more difficult cases were referred to the High Court, the supreme criminal court of Scotland.