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Poverty and prisoners: Were there criminal classes? The great crime problem of Britain: Blinkered vision on transportation: "Robustious days":

The Blackheath Connection

Chapter 7


Poverty and prisoners:


A historian of British patriotism, Colley, notes that about 1711, the extension of credit was needed since the Mint (supervised by the mathematician Newton) was unable to produce sufficient silver and copper coin. There were 140,000 shopkeepers in Britain and Wales. Credit was important in all dealings since many customers had no ready money. Aristocrats and landowners settled once per year when rents came in. Society was oiled by mutual dependency and obligations, and larger shop-keepers acted as mini-banks. ([1])


This financial stupidity helped produce the estimated figure, that by 1716 there were 60,000 debtors imprisoned in England and Wales. The Marshalsea had 300 debtors in 1729, many literally starving to death. ([2]) It hardly speaks of a wealthy country. Writer Daniel Defoe was for Great Britain as a Protestant Israel, for Britain as a nation of liberty, but, notwithstanding, he counted more prisons in London, possibly, than in all Europe's capital cities put together. ([3]) Defoe wrote on Robinson Crusoe evidently after hearing of the Dampier matter with Alexander Selkirk. Just a few years later, Defoe produced Moll Flanders, a zesty satire on recent legislation, about a convict woman repeatedly returning from transportation to America. Maybe Defoe was a better observer of his day than many critics have guessed? In 1722, he published Moll being interested in "actions giving him a light on the nature of man". ([4]) Defoe remained very quick off the mark where new legislation created new situations. Defoe and Jonathan Swift foreshadowed later social attacks on Mercantilism, Imperialism and Slavery. Their eyes were good. Moll Flanders, as novel, has been subject of a recent (late 1970s or early 1980s) BBC TV production, treating the lifestyle of the "lower orders", depicting the suborning of the captain of a convict ship, the spiritual miseries of Newgate prison, final deliciousness arising from contemplation of the manifold ironies evident in the operation of the transportation system of the day.

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By 1729, of the debtors' prisons, the Fleet and Marshalsea were the most notorious. In 1729 the master of Marshalsea was one Bambridge, "a veritable monster in human form" with murderous subordinates who came to the attention of the public and were tried. All prisons in theory were royal. Most were owned by local bodies or even unsupervised private people who farmed out their situation to warders who appointed jailers and made what they could from prisoners. Fees were payable to the turnkey on entry. Fees were charged for beds, for putting on and taking off irons, on discharge from jail. Williams writes, prisons in official fact were nobody's business, and entrenched problems were not really addressed until the time of George III, when John Howard and Jonas Hanway began crying out for reform, often in vain. ([5])


Watson ([6]) provides a good treatment of village life and authority in respect of problems in managing those responsible for crimes minor and major, the poor rate and other aspects of parish life in Britain. "Enthusiasm" (read fanaticism) in religious life was distrusted. There was violence aplenty. Riots and disorder were part of life, a way for the poor to let off steam, so the upper classes took that for granted and so ensured the system was not weakened. Some philanthropists professed to be horrified by the English mixture of inhumanity and inefficiency. ([7]) It has been said, that polite society was no doubt limited, selfish and self-indulgent, monopolising social and political power, dependent on subordinating "the lower orders" and preventing their advancement. ([8]) The prevailing social and political system acted as a lid, pressing down on a cauldron of growing population, sometimes unable to withstand the pressures being expressed economically. And so, the exporting of people became institutionalised. Making a virtue from a felt necessity is a studied gift of the English mind. It seems, England could not employ her newly rising generations, and due to that inadequacy, the lower orders were either suppressed or exported, as though it had been their fault, and not that of the ruling classes. (Today, the reaction of course is called, "blame the victim").


Were there "criminal classes"?


The British historian Williams seems a believer in the notion of "the criminal classes". The philosopher John Locke thought poverty was due to a relaxation of discipline and a corruption of manners, not a shortage of resources and resentment at victimhood, and many shared his view. ([9]) Also until 1750 or so, (and this is pertinent to a discussion of Creasey's novel, below) excessive beer and gin drinking besotted society. (In the Domesday Book times, perhaps every mouth in England had half a gallon of beer weekly). Gin consumption before 1750 was judged an "epidemic". Licensing laws were ineffective and wages were sometimes paid in gin. ([10])


* * *


Administratively in England, the lord-lieutenant led the local justices and militia. JPs had to be men of estate worth at least 100 a year, and were mostly drawn from the squires. The high-sheriff headed the county court and dealt with cases involving no more than forty shillings. In the interests of compassion, "forty shillings" was an artificial ceiling placed in respect of offences against property that were listed as capital crimes. This meant that by community agreement, charges might be lessened in respect of given cases, so an offender could be given a second chance. ([11]) (Compassion expressed this way makes work very difficult for the criminologist-statistician examining Eighteenth Century England).


And with all this administrative chaos stemmed by an ineffective social and economic order, the old Seventeenth Century English fear of a standing army as a menace to civil liberties remained deep-seated. ([12]) Englishmen would have sent felons to the colonies, put up with any inefficiency, with almost any non-violent social squalor, rather than risk the creation of a regular police force. ([13]) It is well recognised that Henry Fielding's appointment to Bow Street in 1749 became a turning point for the proper administration of the law. ([14])


In discussing the development of Britain's modern police force, Whitaker notes: "In England in 1742, Horace Walpole thought the greatest criminals in town [London] were in fact the officers of justice." It was a society where after being farmed out, few offices offered sensible salaries. There was "the nearness to crime of gaining private benefits from public service". ([15]) After the Peterborough massacre in 1819, many MPs began to agree with Robert Peel about the need for a police force, as preferable to fear of the mob or to using the militia (a reference to the 1780 Gordon Riots). In 1812, Britain had to keep a standing army of more than 12,000 to contain industrial unrest in the north of England, more troops than Wellington used in France against Napoleon! Whigs however always feared police forces as an extension of powers of the Crown. William Pitt attempted in 1785 to found a metropolitan police, but London (the City) resisted the idea; such plans were postponed for 44 years. In 1829 when police were formed, the City was exempted, and today it still has its own separate police force. (Patrick Colquhuon's marine police on the Thames were established in 1798).


Special constables had been used in England from 1673, the time of Charles II. ([16]) But in 1739, one English view on the joys of not having a police force was given by Cibber (sic), who said, "Since we are so happy not to have a certain power amongst us which in another country is called the police, let us rather bear the insult than buy its remedy at too dear a cost." ([17]) In 1739, the "king of the beggars", Bampfylde Moore Carew, was transported from Devon. ([18]) Linebaugh meanwhile outlines spectacular escapades by felons in the 1730s which must have caused much contemporary comment - and the creation of folk heroes.


In society's bowels there worked the drive to export people... Thomas Coram, painted in 1740 by Hogarth, organised Britain's first hospital (educational institution) for foundling children. Coram promoted emblems of dominion, commerce and enterprise. He thought stout-hearted commercial enterprise and patriotism were inseparable. Coram had gone to Boston in 1694 as an agent for London merchants, spending 10 years there as shipbuilder and salesman. When he returned he wanted the Board of Trade to resettle demobilised sailors and soldiers in the colonies. Failing at that he turned his attention to illegitimate children. George I would not help with that project. George II did help, to send them out as "children of Great Britain", not unlike the "children of Empire" last sent to Australia in 1967. ([19]) England's habit of exporting hapless people over centuries is truly extraordinary!


The great crime problem of Britain:


The novel The Masters of Bow Street by John Creasey, published in 1974, is concerned with London's first police, the Bow Street Runners. ([20]) ([21]) Creasey had long wanted to write this novel, his themes being Crime and Punishment in London from 1739, and especially the long-awaited creation of the metropolitan police force in 1829. Whenever it was suggested that London - or England - have a police force, Englishmen fearful of their liberties routinely protested and pointed to Europe, saying they wanted no such oppressive police force as the Europeans had to suffer. The London policeman - the "Bobbie" - did not arrive without a long political struggle, and Creasey traces this with fair accuracy, particularly concerning the Thames water police from the 1790s, the creation of magistrate Patrick Colquhuon. Colquhuon was a Scot who years before had briefly been a convict contractor to North America as well as a tobacco merchant. If any man was a hybrid of strenuous Scots interests in religion, trade, a more lucid and harmonious society, versus Crime and Punishment, it was Patrick Colquhuon.


Creasey's novel proposes that genteel Londoners were chronic victims of organised crime gangs. That circa 1739, near the original walled City of London, with its gates and slums, were many tunnels "so that criminals could come and go at will". London's population about 1739, the novel suggests, was 150,000 people dwelling in ten parishes. Above all, by 1739, Creasey says, the English regarded the notion of a national police force with genuine horror. They believed it could only lead to a European-style police state, but as he writes, from 1739, "Justice could be bought and sold. Perjury was heard in every court at least as often as the truth. Honest witnesses were either bribed to lie or terrified into lying..." "With more than a hundred crimes ... punishable by hanging and more been added yearly to the statute book in the false belief that vicious punishment would reduce the amount of crime"... ([22]) There was "Hanging or transportation for the humblest of thefts". All of which is honest for the times, and as good a precis as any.


But oddly enough, Creasey scarcely mentions any transportation of convicts to North America, and his references to it sound off-key. Oddly in British attitude and history, the policing of the country is often seen as little-connected with transporting convicts to North America or Australia. Transportation is seen in abstract and as abstract, detached from the rest of life. Transportation was like most unfortunate accidents - it happened to other people.


Blinkered vision on transportation:


Creasey's view reflects in Britain a tendency for writers - and not only historians - to ignore or exclude material dealing with convict transportation to Australia. By 1993, this "exclusion zone" had long been applied to the biography of Duncan Campbell, and his links with William Bligh of the legend of the mutiny on the Bounty; to the history of British whaling from 1780, and a variety of other topics. Maritime history in particular has been divorced from the application of penal measures, yet there is a vast literature on the opening of the Pacific Ocean to British shipping.


With writing on penology, a prime example is Winifred A. Elkin, The English Penal System ([23]) This title discusses in detail the treatment of the law-breaker after sentence is passed and the claims of the English Penal System to be a re-educating force. Chapter Five is concerned with: Prisons of Yesterday and Prisons of Today. This chapter almost completely ignores the subject matter on transportation to Australia and related legislation. Jeremy Bentham and the utilitarian philosophy on punishment are mentioned on page 31. There is no item, "hulks", in Elkin's index. In this book, the Thames hulks scarcely existed and the transportation of 160,000 felons to Australia evidently did not occur. Elkin is a prime example of British blinkeredness, and of the general, quite peculiar failure of criminologists to read on one of the more expensive criminological experiments in human history: the settling of Australia as a convict colony!


This problem of amnesia-amongst-intellectuals" is not something confined only to British writing. Before World War Two, only three historians had worked seriously on convict transportation. They were Wilfrid Oldham (in 1933), an Australian, and an American, A. E. Smith ([24]) (in 1947). A second Australian was a Catholic archbishop keen to examine the legislation under which Irish convicts had been sent to Australia, Eris O'Brien ([25]) (in 1937). These three writers quite properly probed the shipping used in convict transportation. After World War Two, this almost-suspicious approach to shipping was dropped by Australian historians. One topic given attention was the so-called "convict taint" allegedly peculiar to Australian social history due to the convict era. Convict transportation was ignored as maritime history: social history won the day. The result was a gross distortion of the British-Australian maritime history of convict history. Not even the publication in 1959 of Charles Bateson's The Convict Ships could inspire Australians to rectify the problems that might have arisen, and did.


If either British or Australian historians had deepened the findings on convict transportation made before 1945, as to shipping-related matters, this book would be unnecessary to write. But it will remain entertaining to refer to John Creasey's novel on the creation of the British police force from time to time as the life of Duncan Campbell is unfolded.


* * *


"Robustious days":


In world literature, even today, despite the extensive British experiment in convict transportation to Australia, sociologists and historians have still not made a useful rapprochement. ([26]) An American title, ([27]) Historical Approaches to Crime, has no index items on colonial Australia, prison hulks, or the transportation of English convicts to either America or Australia, yet it indexes the Austrian-Prussian war.


This book speaks (p. 9), more rightly than it knows, of "The avoidance of history by many sociologists [having] been due, in part, to certain biases in this ancient discipline..." of the difficulty of teasing out the mythical, allegorical and historically false... Of "A growing number of criminologists [having] come to realize the need for analyzing the past for a better understanding of the present, and for correcting many of the misconceptions about crime that have been entrenched in our consciousness for many decades." And it noted calls for papers on the history of crime at the (1976) 28th annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology. ([28]) This title treats notions of organised crime, and argues that notions of organised crime are the product of ideology. But there remain problems of finding a really scientific history. The question is asked, do historical generalizations aid the understanding of particular events, topics such as control of public disorder, influences (citing Sellin's work) of the social institution of chattel slavery on the evolution of social practices in Europe and the US from ancient times to the present?


It is asked: how professional thieves find a set of integrated situations and co-operative understandings that combine to offer thieves immunity from sanction? And there is a call for a check on interpretations of outlooks on bandits or outlaws as folk heroes. All this, along with ignoring the "founding" of Australia as a convict colony!


It is partly the differing attitudes of writers to authority, and to expressions of authoritarianism versus anti-authoritarianism, which makes the task of the historian difficult. McMullan for example has found it difficult to tease out the question: was there organised crime in England? Certainly, smuggling was well-organised, but it operated in response to laws now judged as bad. Crime can perhaps be separated into various baskets, one for crimes to due economic desperation, two for responses to bad laws, three for "timeless crimes" such as premeditated murder, protracted fraud, bigamy, rape, a career of robbery and/or violence; four for crimes partly inspired by sub-cultural mores, five for misdemeanours occasioned by inability to adapt to changing conditions (such as the offences of the debtors mentioned above).


McMullan on balance plumbs for more organised crime than less. He notes how changes in the poor laws resulted in itinerant workers being stigmatized: "Stigmatized by the law as dangerous and criminal, the poor were increasingly demoralized". ([29]) But in England the definition of crime was being changed in a screw-tightening way as increasingly, the view was adopted that property - one of the principal bases of voting power - had to be protected with increasing severity. (It would follow, that if the population of poorer people grew and attacked more property, then voters would tend to vote to protect their property). McMullan notes the shifting sands of changing definitions even of the word "criminal".


One hypothesis which has not been advanced respecting London's state of crime is that the system of retailing in England was so primitive, the security of goods was so poor, that theft was a constant temptation for the poor. Most of the remarks on crime rates regarded by historians arise from the spokesmen of the capitalist classes who handled bulk commodities, the sort who seldom became debtors, the sort who extended credit. The entire system of the wholesale/retail distribution of goods has never been examined in a country where trade, at bottom, was regarded as vulgar. The links between the commodity handler (the "merchant"), the warehouser, the wholesaler, then the retailer, then the consumer, have never been explored. Distribution systems for many different commodities literally leaked temptation at every stage of the way. So badly, it would be surprising if poorer folk did not "re-distribute" goods amongst themselves. Packaging of the finally-purchased item was poor, security for bulk items was poor. Finally, in the late 1790s, London's capitalists became so tired of the situation they spent a fortune on a massive new West India Docks and made changes to the systems for unloading ships, warehousing, and holding excise goods in bond - as Patrick Colquhuon well knew!


McMullan notes, goods were cheap in London, and a steady living could be made from minor commodities, whether imported or from the counties. ([30]) He notes, the fluid networks existing, "the ecological basis for [the] organisation of `crime'." Subcultures included the entertainment industry, the amusements of thieves, tricksters, con-men, fences and prostitutes. London attracted the romantic, hopeful workers, wayfarers and demobilized soldiers and navy sailors. There were itinerant occupational groups. London was also a magnet for the dispossessed. Thieves sold goods at fairs. Shops were set up in streets (and still are). But to complain too much about all this would be to complain about cities, which also generate or funnel wealth.


England's crime rates tended to blow out when men came home from wars to face unemployment and reintegration into their communities where social welfare systems were largely non-existent; which is precisely why Coram suggested such people be sent to the colonies. But it has seldom been wondered if the system of the distribution of bulk and semi-processed goods in England was so inefficient, or so naively trusting... that to blame the poorer folk for taking bits and pieces as land was enclosed and as their feudal-style perquisites were dismantled across a century, or their resentments boiled over, when the king's men could freely ram any man, any day, into any naval vessel for little wages... would that be like blaming Adam and Eve for eating fruit from the trees in the Garden of Eden before they sinned?.


The proposition then is that there was likely amongst the lower orders a very extensive black market barter economy for small batches of commodities. Few folk questioned where goods came; much as few of the lower orders would have questioned a poacher's night life. If crime was organised, some of the shape of the organisation was allowed by inefficiencies in goods-handling systems. Sailors of course were hardly to be trusted - their pay came too slowly for that. If any of these sorts of concerns were genuine amongst criminologists and sociologists, there would be no lack of observations made about British and Australian social history between 1780 and 1820. But to proceed...


* * *


Is it pure accident, an information coincidence of the meaningless kind, that novelist Creasey, treating the Masters of Bow Street, picked 1739 as a year with reference to the alleged existence of organised crime in London? When gangs of criminals supposedly used tunnels about the original walled city of London? This was about the time that Andrew Reid, a friend of the secretary of the Treasury, began transporting convicts. Reid's predecessor, Forward, it is said, had corrupt links with Wilde the thief-taker. In the Eighteenth Century, till the 1790s, few if any writers have had respect for the integrity of the law-enforcers. In general, outside London, smugglers were indeed well-organised, more so because of their regular profits. By about 1750, reckless bands of smugglers were operating effectively in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, but Harper and Teignmouth regard them as products of bad laws, "a vicious system" with its origin with William III when more taxes were laid due to government's need for revenue. ([31])


In all, the English Eighteenth Century was inefficient, socially and economically. Wages for men in the armed forces were low, Capitalism was unscrupulous, taxation systems were ludicrous. In the import-export world, wool could not be kept away from smugglers getting it out of the country, and when commodities were being distributed, anyone in range could often take much what they liked. This is partly why the system of convict transportation could become an institution - temptation was excessively rife. As any researcher working on merchant families will notice - how rare was trust! Even in families.


* * *


Reid the convict contractor could hardly have had a better reference than a secretary at the Treasury. Perhaps from government levels, it had been decided that at least for the metropolis, convict transportation would be better served by a merchant who had useful capital, to ensure that the job would be done regularly by experienced people. And it may have been thought that with the policing of the metropolis in such a primitive state of organisation, putting about a belief that criminals were quite well-organised might inspire corrective action, one day?


If so, such a belief took hold, whether it was true or not. Londoners in time became convinced that criminals were highly organised, but they took no action to create a police force to counter that organisation. London life was boisterous, the truth may never be known. The choice of Reid as contractor made London's ability to regularly transport criminals more reliable. It also would made Reid more confident in promising his North American correspondents his ships would be moving regularly. Reid built on all that had gone before. Duncan Campbell was the final inheritor.


* * *


There were short crops and weather difficulties in Virginia in 1716-1718. ([32]) There was also harsh treatment of indentured servants in the tobacco-producing colonies. If they had a choice, indentured servants preferred the industrial northern colonies - and this factor enhanced the market for convict labour in the tobacco colonies. From 1716 there arise questions relating to which ships captains sailed for which convict contractors, and the agents, factors and customers they dealt with in North America. With the case of Duncan Campbell after 1770, tracking his agents and employees leads on into a maze of tobacco-trade-related situations in North American and Britain, while that trade was destroyed temporarily by the American Revolution. For the period after 1770, the British historian Kenneth Morgan and the American, Roger Ekirch, have researched the Bristol convict contractors, Stevenson, Randolph and Cheston. Their findings are almost spectacular.


[Finis Chapter 7]

Chapter 7 words 4151, words with footnotes 4752 pages 9 footnotes 32


[1] Colley, Britons, p. 66.

[2] Mingay, Georgian London, p. 124.

[3] Colley, Britons, p. 33.

[4] Daniel Defoe, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders. Edited with an introduction by Juliet Mitchell. Ringwood, Penguin, 1978. First pub., 1722.

[5] Williams, Whig, p. 130. On prison reformer, John Howard: Charles Campbell, The Intolerable Hulks: British Shipboard Confinement, 1776-1857. Bowie, Maryland, Heritage Books, Inc., 1994.

[6] J. Steven Watson, The Reign of George III 1760-1815. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1960.

[7] Watson, Geo III, p. 38.

[8] Williams, Whig, p. 143.

[9] Williams, Whig, pp. 126-127.

[10] Williams, Whig, p. 128.

[11] Watson, Geo III, pp. 42ff.

[12] Williams, Whig, p. 203.

[13] On Britain's modern police force, Ben Whitaker, The Police in Society. London, Eyre Methuen, 1979., pp. 36-40ff.

[14] Mingay, Georgian London, p. 114.

[15] John L. McMullan, The Canting Crew: London's Criminal Underworld, 1550-1700. New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1984., p. 145.

[16] Whitaker, Police, p. 129.

[17] Whitaker, Police, p. 174. Linebaugh, The London Hanged, p. 301, and p. 309 on "working class resistance".

[18] As cited above, Joanna Innes, 'The role of transportation in seventeenth and eighteenth century English penal practice'.

[19] Colley, Britons, pp. 56ff.

[20] London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1974., p. 86. Here, the serious observer of "organised crime" should digest the thesis in P. Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1991, which mentions many people also named in this book, including Bligh of Bounty, though strangely, not Duncan Campbell. The present author finds that Linebaugh's thesis on the ideology of punitive responses to "economic" or property crime cannot fully explain English community reactions to the more timeless sorts of crime, rape and murder, the sorts of crimes most proscribed in most societies.

[21] David Ascoli, The Queen's Peace: The Origins and Development of the Metropolitan Police, 1829-1979. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1979.

[22] The British eighteen century notion that increasingly severe punishment will reduce the crime rate is of course all too commonly met by Australians familiar with convict history.

[23] Mitcham, Melbourne, Pelican, 1957. Frank McLynn, Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England. London, Routledge, 1989., pp. 291ff. McLynn pp. 291ff remarks, for the year 1772 (when Duncan Campbell was no longer being paid a bounty for transporting felons, "The choice of Botany Bay as destination for transported convicts is properly a subject for the historian of Australia rather than English Crime and Punishment... ". In McLynn's book, the hulks establishment from 1776 is not indexed, although transportation to Australia is indexed.

[24] A. E. Smith, Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labour in America, 1607-1776. University of Carolina Press, 1947. Gloucester, Mass., Peter Smith, 1965.

[25] Eris O'Brien, The Foundation of Australia 1786-1800: A Study In English Criminal Practice and Penal Colonization in the Eighteenth Century. London, Sheed and Ward, 1937. Second edition.: Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1950.

[26] James A. Inciardi, Alan A. Block and Lyle A. Hallowell, (Eds.), Historical Approaches to Crime. London, Sage Publications, Vol. 57, 1977. Sage Library of Social Research.

[27] London, 1977.

[28] This book treats in general the Mafia of Sicily, philosophy and method of history, some comparative analyses of appropriate data, and the American wild west and figures such as Billy the Kid (William Bonney).

[29] John L. McMullan, The Canting Crew: London's Criminal Underworld, 1550-1700. New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1984., pp. 2ff, p. 40.

[30] McMullan, The Canting Crew, p. 11, 22, 51.

[31] Teignmouth and Harper, The Smugglers Vol. 1. 1973. Yorkshire, England, EP Publishing, 1973., Orig. 1923., pp. 11-12.

[32] John M. Hemphill, Virginia and the English Commercial System, 1689-1733. London, Garland, 1985. [Facsimile of a 1964 Ph. D. thesis, Princeton University., p. 19, pp. 46ff.

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