England Poor Laws
In 1601, the England Poor Laws became the comprehensive approach to the treatment of the poor. Queen Elizabeth adopted the program to solve the problem on three levels:
1. Set the poor to work--employ those who are able to work.
2. Give relief to those who cannot work--the blind, disabled, aged, insane, etc.
3. To punish or deter the vagrant or those who avoid work.
The poor laws distinguished England from the rest of the continent in its efforts to bring aid to the poverty stricken. These policies continued through the 18th Century. (2)

Home Relief
Home relief was a process of helping the poor by providing the needy with small pensions, clothing, food, etc., in order to provide them with a helping hand. Funding for home relief was provided by a tax that went to your local parish. (3)

Act of Settlement
The Act of Settlement was an attempt to solve the problem of vagrancy by restricting aid to the poor outside of your local parish. If you left your parish, you were not able to receive aid. While this helped stop vagrancy, it also represented a form of cruelty to the poor by restricting there actions and denying people aid in many situations. (2)

Institutional Relief
Institutional relief was a process of helping the poor that provided a forum for punitive means of dealing with vagrants and beggars. The local parish would construct a workhouse overseen by an elected officer where the "criminal poor" were sent to provide community service and be rehabilitated. Conditions in the workhouses worsened during the course of the 18th Century and began to turn away from rehabilitation centers to more of a penitentiary. (3)

Newgate Prison
Newgate Prison was the most notorious and oldest prison in England--having stood on its site for nearly a thousand years. In 1666, the prison was rebuilt after the London fire. The prison was a disorderly place that reflected class divisions. Many would die before even being tried for their crimes, catching a case of "jail fever." If you could afford it, you were granted more suitable conditions. (9)

Serious crimes were tried by professional royal judges at twice-yearly assizes. At these assizes there were two sessions. First, having waited in jail, the accused were presented privately before a grand jury which decided if there were grounds for an indictment. Every one out of seven were dismissed. If you were indicted, then you were tried publicly before a judge and jury. The jury would determine guilt and the judge would sentence. (5)

Executions were commonly held at the permanent gallows at Tyburn, west of London. This was an enormously popular tourist attraction during the 18th Century. (7)

Game Laws
The game laws are a good representation of the class divisions in 18th Century England. Written in 1670, the objective of the game laws was to ensure that the right to hunt was reserved exclusively for land-owning aristocracy. In order to hunt legally, one had to be qualified by owning a large estate--or roughly one half of one percent of the population. The game laws were strictly enforced and punished harshly. (10)

Local Justice of the Peace
The local justice of the peace heard petty criminal cases without a jury. These magistrates were members of England's ruling class who were appointed and often served their own best interests. (10)

Subsistence is a Right
Subsistence was of great concern to the English monarchy. To ensure the people were happy and did not revolt meant making sure that they were fed. This became increasingly important during the 18th Century as the concept of the market economy began to develop. People began to view subsistence as a right that should be supported by the government. (11)

Reprieves and Pardons

A reprieve is when a sentence is withdrawn and the execution is, therefore, suspended. This can take place before or after judgment. Reprieves are possible if the judge is not satisfied with the verdict, the evidence is suspicious, or the indictment is insufficient. Judges may therefore, grant reprieves.

Reprieves may also be granted if a woman who is capitally convicted pleads her pregnancy. In this case, her execution may be postponed until after she delivers. Another cause of regular reprieve is if the offender becomes non compos (not of sound mind) between the judgment and date of execution.(27)

Purified by pain
Although England was the first of the European countries to eliminate judicial torture as a means of gathering evidence before a trial, physical brutality still defined punishments. The body of a criminal became the forum for defining the crime they committed. Public executions were intended to intimidate the population. Hangings drew large crowds and onlookers would purchase penny-pamphlets describing the judge's sentence, the chaplain's sermon, and the condemned's last words. At these executions, depending on the crime and the person's status in society, they would receive a variety of punishments. A nobleman would receive a quick beheading while a commoner would often times be hung on the gallows following some form of torture. Many where broken on the wheel (having your bones systematically broken) or burned at the stake. After your execution, your body may be drawn and quartered, or your head set in a public place as a warning. Even for petty crimes, often fines were accompanied by a flogging or some other form of relatively mild pain. Near the end of the century, punishments began to depart from the body as the catalyst of punishment, and turn towards more rehabilitative modes of correction.

The Death Penalty

In the Eighteenth Century, there was a sharp rise in the number of crimes
committed. Several hundred crimes warranted in a death penalty,
especially those committed against property. In response to the increase
in crime, the statues changed as follows: the number of offenses
punishable by death, increased or the benefit of clergy for existing
felonies was removed and they then became capital crimes.

By the end of this century, there was about two hundred offenses
punishable by death. The application of the death penalty, however, was
extremley erratic. This was due to the fact that the judge has the power
to reprieve the offender so that the or she could petition for mercy.
Judges did not have to issue reprieves and when they decided not to do so,
the death sentence was ususally carried out, without an appeal.

In practice, many offenders convicted of captial crimes actually escaped
the gallows. This was mainly due to the fact that many offenders were
given reprieves or royal pardons. These reprieves and pardons were only
usually given on the condition of transportation.

In response to the erratic application of the death penalty, limitations
began to be placed on the number and type of offenses for which offenders
could be sentenced to death. The Enlightenment thinkers such as
Montesquieu, Voltaire and Cesare Beccaria were powerful stimuli to reform.
In addition to the Enlightenment thinkers, the rise in industrial working
class and humanitarian movements also led to the reforms.


How were criminals arrested in 18th Century England? Find out:

You have been arrested and you must now answer to the suspected crime. Your arrest was achieved in one of the following ways.

Please choose how you would like to be arrested:
A. by warrant
B. by an officer without a warrant
C. by a private person without a warrant

A. You have chosen to be arrested by a warrant.

Justices of the peace have granted your warrant. The warrant forces you to appear in court
and willingly undergo questioning under oath. Your warrant is under the seal of the justice, it states the time and date that you committed the crime and causes for the drafting of the warrant.

B. You have chosen to be arrested by officers without a warrant.

The sheriff executed your arrest because your crime has caused a breach of the peace. The
sheriff is authorized to break down doors to come capture you and in some cases kill you if you will not cooperate. You willingly follow the sheriff's orders and follow him to jail and remain there until morning.

C. You have chosen to be arrested by a private person without a warrant. By law, a private person that is present when a crime is committed must arrest you, the criminal. It is justified that he breaks down doors and my, if necessary, kill if you will not otherwise allow him to complete the arrest process.