Aboard the prison hulks

During the 17th and 18th centuries, and into the 19th, the British used former seagoing vessels as prisons for convict and prisoners of war. They were made unusable by removing rigging, masts, and rudders, reconfigured with jail cells, and moored.

Prison hulks provided a quick solution to the need for more prison space when land capacity was overstretched. During the Napoleonic wars, Britain faced the need to accommodate more than a hundred thousand prisoners at a time: French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Greek, Croat, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Polish and American.

Officers signed a parole document promising not to escape, and were assigned a place to stay. Ordinary soldiers and seamen were imprisoned, and there just were not enough prisons. The prison hulks were one of the answers.

In 1806, twenty hulks were in use, the larger ones capable of containing 1200 men. By 1814, the number had climbed to fifty-one. The hulks were moored in groups in naval harbours, including Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth.

The British blamed Napoleon for the huge number of prisons. He, they said, changed the rules. He would not exchange prisoners; he detained civilians; he ordered returning officers to break the parole that was a condition of their return; and he would not allow invalids to go home. Furthermore, he refused to pay an allowance for the upkeep of each French prisoner in Britain. How uncivilised!

In fact, according to historian Gavin Daly, these practices of the old European aristocracy had been swept away by the French Revolution. Napoleon was not the instigator of change but the product of it. And the British were slow to react. The hulks were an ad hoc response to an unexpected situation.

During and after the war, the French decried the prison hulks for lack of food, overcrowding, the brutality of the guards, and exposure to disease. They spoke of horrendous mortality rates, and survivors who were nearly all disabled by their experiences. “Imagine a generation of the dead coming forth from their graves…and still you have no more than a feeble…idea of how my companions in misfortune appeared,” Louis Garneray wrote in The Floating Prison, the story of his nine years of captivity at Portsmouth.

This French perspective has dominated the historical narrative since Waterloo, but recent historians have questioned whether it might, in some particulars, be exaggerated.

The hulks were not palaces. They were overcrowded, and disease thrives in overcrowded situations. The average death rate was 3 to 4%, worse than most land-based prisons but slightly better than Dartmoor. But nothing like the death rate among ordinary criminals, which could be more than 20% on the hulks set aside for them.

(I tried to find a death rate for ordinary British soldiers in French prisons for comparison purposes, but the only estimates I found were in the counterpart overblown propoganda written by the British during and after the war. The only thing I can say for sure is that prisons weren’t nice places in either country, but it was better to be an English prisoner in France than a Spanish one.)

Back to the hulks. The competition for the role of commander of a hulk, evidenced by the waiting list for each commander position, hints at the opportunity for self-enrichment. Some sources claim that commanders or their officers regularly stole from the supplies, selling them for a profit and leaving the prisoners to go hungry and poorly clothed.

At the time, those in charge of the system countered such charges by claiming that the bored prisoners spent their time gambling, and those who went without were unsuccessful gamblers.

Historian Patricia Crimmins describes the food:

The prison diet was monotonous and dietetically unbalanced, but it compared favourably with that of civil prisoners in British jails and not unfavourably with the fare of British seamen. Prisoners had a quart (two pints) of beer, one and one-half pounds of bread and one-third of an ounce of salt daily; three-quarters of a pound of fresh beef on six days; half a pint of dried peas on four days; four ounces of butter or six ounces of cheese on Friday; but no fresh fruit or vegetables or wine except to the sick. British sailors had a pound of biscuit per day; and four pounds of beef, two pounds of pork, two pounds of peas, one and one-half pounds of oatmeal, six ounces each of sugar and butter, and twelve ounces of cheese per week, plus a gallon of beer and half a pint of rum per day.

Crimmins also writes of prisoners who obtained their release by volunteering to serve in the navy, and who found conditions so bad they petitioned to be returned to the hulks!

Handcrafts were not just a way to pass the time, but provided the possibility of a bit of income.

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Three roading heroes

In the second half of the 18th century and the early years of the 19th century, the main highways of England saw a revolution.

In 1754, an advertisement boasted that the trip from London to Edinburgh took only “ten days in summer and twelve in winter”. Compare that with the mail coach in 1832 which was advertised as 42 hours and 23 minutes. (The return trip was longer: 45 hours and 3 minutes.)

The difference was largely down to the construction of the roads.

John Metcalf was a blind Yorkshire man who had worked as a carrier, including a stint with the army moving guns over boggy ground. In 1765, he won a contract to build a three-mile section of road, and he applied his experience transporting heavy loads to such good effect that he built over 180 miles of road throughout his career.

He believed a good road needed good foundations and a smooth convex surface that would drain easily. He knew rain caused the most damage to roads, and focused on good drainage, with ditches both sides.

At around the same time, a French engineer was also experimenting with better road construction. Pierre-Marie-Jérôme Trésaguet pioneered a two-layer construction, with large stones at the base and a thin layer of smaller stone above that would be pressed down and jammed into one another as traffic passed along the road.

Thomas Telford was a Scot raised in poverty and apprenticed to a stonemason. He went on to become a largely self-taught engineer and architect. Appointed Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire in 1787, his successful designs for bridges and roads lead him to jobs managing the design and construction of several canals, including their aquaducts, plus 184 miles of roads and bridges in the Scottish Highlands.

EDITED to add a profile of a Roman road.

EDITED to add a profile of a modern road.

Our next road hero has given his name to the road construction we still use today. John Loudon MacAdam was born in Scotland. He purportedly showed an interest in making roads as a school child, but moved to the United States on his father’s death when he was 14. Returning 13 years later with what was left of the fortune he’d made during the War of Independence (the government of the new United States confiscated quite a bit of it), he bought an estate.

At the time, most roads were made of gravel, which turned back into ruts, ridges and potholes as soon as heavy vehicles drove over the freshly spread surface. MacAdam began experimenting to see what could be done about this.

In 1798, he was on the move again, appointed as an agent for revictualling the navy in the west of England. He settled in Falmouth, but travelled all the time for his work, over roads that were “at once loose, rough, and perishable, tedious and dangerous to travel on, and very costly to repair.”

MacAdam had worked out that roads worked best when they were raised above the surrounding land, well drained, and made from stone broken into cube shaped fragments. Despite local opposition and at his own expense, he built a number of roads that were so successful he was, in 1815, appointed surveyor-general of the Bristol roads.

And the rest is history. As Bristol’s road network was transformed from muddy dangerous rutted quagmires to even well-drained surfaces that carriages could swiftly traverse, other places started asking how to take the same engineering feat home to their places.

The website Electric Scotland says:

In 1823, on McAdam’s petition, a committee of the House of Commons was set up to inquire into the feasibility of applying this new system of road-making throughout the country. McAdam, of course, attended, and gave evidence at length. Only then did it appear what immense labours and trouble he had taken in order to bring his system to perfection. Between 1798 and 1814 he had travelled no less than 30,000 miles in order to examine the roads of Britain. He had spent 2,000 days on his travels, which had cost him £5,000. Besides this sum, he had expended large sums on private experiments. All this he had carried out from entirely disinterested motives; his only wish was that the roads should be improved for the public good. Philanthropists who work among the destitute or afflicted are generally recognized, but we should not forget that the patient, painstaking round of labour which McAdam undertook for the good of his fellow men, is also philanthropy at its highest.

My characters in my current work-in-progress are on a road trip between Cambridge and Newcastle in 1812: hence the excursion down this road-making byway.

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Little maids from school

I’ve been on a grandmother expedition this week to help my daughters and granddaughter examine a couple of new schools, and in the spare moments of my trip, I’ve been writing The Realm of Silence, which begins with the discovery that the heroine’s daughter Amy has run away from school.

Back in 1812, most girls were educated at home. A girl from a wealthy family might have a governess and a series of instructors in ladylike skills, such as dancing and painting. A girl of more modest means would be educated by her parents, learning whatever her mother was capable of teaching her and her father was ready to permit.

Some, though, went off to school, perhaps because they were from upwardly mobile families seeking social skills that were not practiced in their home, or perhaps because the family circumstances made the usual home education more difficult.

The available schools were private affairs. They were usually run by spinsters or widows, although some teachers were married and assisted by their husbands. Teachers had no formal qualifications, and those who ran schools needed a head for business and a good circle of friends to speak for them to the parents of possible pupils.

Day schools were less expensive to run. Boarding schools, as Mary Wollstonecraft and her sisters found, presented more of a challenge. They needed to take lodgers, as well as pupils, to cover the rent and the wages of servants.

A series of advertisements published by Susana Ives gives us an idea of the programme and fees. Some were very basic: the fundamentals of reading and writing, and for the rest the kinds of skills daughters required to attract a husband at or just above their social circumstances. Other offered a very extensive programme. English and French languages, history, needlework, music, dancing, writing, arithmetic and geography might cost between 30 and 40 guineas a year. Or twenty guineas might get you English and needlework, with other subjects available for an extra fee.

A Female Seminary is conducted at the above place; by Miss Woollaston, who pays particular attention to the health, comfort, and improvement of her young charge.—Terms, for general instruction, 24 Guineas per Annum.—Entrance One Guinea. French,  Italian, Latin, Music, Drawing, Dancing, each Four Guineas per Annum.—Geography, with the use of Globes, two Guineas per Annum. Writing and accounts, Ten Guineas per Annum.—Washing, 12 shillings per Quarter.—Terms, for Parlour Boarders, 24 Guineas per Quarter.

Girls’ schools were an important part of the scene in Regency England and provided a crucial opportunity for gentile ladies to make both a living and a social contribution.

Teachers often made their start as boarders or half-boarders, learning the skills they would later teach, and bound to the school as an apprentice for a certain number of years. They could then become a schoolmistress or a governess. Some also inherited their position; many of the most successful schools were family affairs, with daughters taking over from their mothers, or nieces from an aunt.

Teaching was one of the few professions open to a lady, as a school teacher or as a governess. The former was less secure but might lead to eventual independence; the later offered security, but with little chance of saving for retirement.

It would be another fifty years before the rising feminist women’s movement would place emphasis on a better education for girls as a pathway to greater equality, but the private academies and seminaries of England were a step in that direction.

Two hundred years on, my granddaughter is off to a co-educational school to study subjects her peers of two centuries ago were denied on technology they could never have dreamed of. And her career choices are limited only by her aspirations (which include university). The Regency is a lovely place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

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A source of trouble and expense

I’ve fallen down a most interesting research rabbit hole, reading records, reports, personal accounts and research about prisoners on both sides during the long war between France and Britain that began with the French Revolution and ended after Waterloo.

Prisoners of war formed part of war policy. Each nation had to balance the benefits of keeping the other nations men against the cost of caring for them. This led to the practice of each nation paying a food allowance for their own people, and appointing an agent to oversee fair treatment.

In earlier wars, European nations had also practiced prisoner exchanges (or paid ransom if they did not have an equal number of prisoners). In an article on Prisoners of War and British Port Communities, Patricia Crimins suggests several reasons for the rarity of prisoner exchanges between Britain and revolutionary and imperial France.

  • France was ideologically opposed to prisoner exchanges, seeing them as traditional
  • France had far fewer British prisoners than Britain had French prisoners, and could simply not afford to make the exchange—in 1796, Britain held 11,000 French prisoners, while France held fewer than 5,000 British prisoners. By 1799, the number of French prisoners of war in Britain had doubled, but the number of British in France had scarcely changed.
  • During the Napoleonic period, more than 100,000 French prisoners of war were held in Britain, and French policy was to “force Britain to bear the entire cost of the prisoners it held in the hope that this would weaken the economy”.

In Napoleon’s Lost Legions, Gavin Daly says the Napoleonic wars mark the end of the ancient practices of parole, return of non-combatants, and prisoner exchange, and the beginning of the modern practice of internment until the war is over.

For the French on parole in British towns, the war must have been long enough. For those of lower rank kept in prisons—or worse, on the terrible prison hulks that I’ll write about another time—it must have seemed forever.

 

 

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The detainees of Verdun

He says: “Madame, permittez me, to pay my profound esteem to your engaging person! & to seal on your divine Lips my everlasting attachment!!!” A cynical and sensual grin indicates the character of his advances. She smiles with coy complacency, saying, “Monsieur, you are truly a well-bred Gentleman! – & tho’ you make me blush, yet, you Kiss so delicately, that I cannot refuse you; tho’ I was sure you would Deceive me again!!!” Above their heads are oval bust portraits of Napoleon (left) and George III (right), the two men extending their arms as if to shake hands; the King scowls, Napoleon regards him with brooding suspicion. The frames are bordered by olive branches and palm-branches. 1 January 1803

Even before the Peace of Amiens was officially signed in March 1802, people from England came flooding back into France. The country had been closed to them for ten years. Many had property in France they wanted to check on, others came as tourists or on business or to visit family.

Most came and went during the eighteen months of the peace. Some were trapped when, on 23 May 1803, Napoleon signed an edict to detain every male Briton between the ages of 16 and 60. The orders were carried out quickly and efficiently. At first, women and children were allowed to go, but soon every Briton, of whatever age, male and female (even British spouses of French citizens), found themselves prisoners of France for the next 11 years.

At first, they could remain where they were, but soon Napoleon ordered them to various cities, notably Verdun.

It was a sizeable town a long way from the sea, and the influx of (usually) wealthy English was welcomed. John Goldsworth Alger, in his 1904 account of the detentions, says a French newspaper compared the detainees to sheep enclosed in a fold to manure the soil.

The English were able to hire lodgings (at extortionate prices) and live much as normal, though if they could not afford living costs, or if they misbehaved in any way, they were liable to be imprisoned.

Verdun was a walled town, and within its walls the detainees lived much as they would have lived in London, though paying double the normal price for food and everything else.

Some behaved badly. One was sent to prison for seducing a townsman’s wife. Another struck a gendarme who reprimanded him for behaving indecently with his French mistress at the theatre. Still more gambled, insulted the French, and fought with the townspeople and one another.

Others occupied themselves with hobbies or work, or social activities, or raising subscriptions with which the wealthier detainees sought to help the poor.

General Virion was in charge of the detainees and the prisoners of war who soon joined them. The detainees made many complaints about his extortionate practices. One man, a regular social contact of the General, reported he had leave to go out into the country on a day that all leave was recalled. He was heading back into the town when two gendarmes stopped him and told him the order didn’t apply to him. Later, when he did return, he was arrested and faced with a choice: pay a huge fine or be imprisoned.

The general was summoned to Paris in 1810 to explain himself to a commission appointed by Napoleon, but shot himself before the investigation could begin. His successor was likewise asked to explain himself, but blamed all extortion on a subordinate. This man also shot himself, leaving a note that said he was innocent, but — having been blamed by the boss — he could not face dishonour.

I’m finding some wonderful stories and hints of stories about people caught up in the detentions; not just in Verdun but in other towns. As I continue to research for Concealed in Shadow, I’ll share some here.

 

 

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Who wears the pants?

I went on a search to find out when fall fastenings on men’s trousers gave way to fly fastenings and fell down a lovely research rabbit hole. How did it come about that men wore trousers and women didn’t?

That turned out to be a Euro-centric question, but since my interest is the Regency period, where breeches were giving way to trousers, let it stand.

Riding horses on a cold winter’s day

Some researchers attach the whole dichotomy to horse riding, claiming that trousers provide better protection for vulnerable portions of the anatomy during the riding process. They suggest trouser wearing began with the hordes of the Eurasian steppes, who successfully invaded more southern, robe-wearing, civilisations, until their victims adopted trousers in order to ride more effectively and win.

Seems to me that the freedom of movement trousers give, as any Western woman can attest, may have factored into that. A fighter in a voluminous robe might be at a disadvantage when matched by one with both legs separately covered.

Other think that cold was a huge factor, and point to the fact that men and women in the far north both wore trousers and tunics of fur, and Pacific Islanders to this day wrap themselves in a length of cloth, with the way the garment is tied often the only difference between the clothing of men and women.

Probably both cold and ease of movement factor in to why, in colder climates, trousers have always been common working wear for both men and women, often under a robe or long tunic.

Once a knight is enough

But as I noted above, the strong line between trousers for women and dresses for men was a European thing, and the reason for that might go back to the knights.

The Celts and other tribes of Northern Europe wore leggings and tunics. Once the Romans, with their prejudice against such barbarous clothing, retreated to Rome and then to Constantinople, leggings and tunics became the favoured wear for everyone.

At that time, trousers were literally a pair — two tubes, usually made from woollen material. They were worn over an undergarment with a belt, and the tubes were attached to the belt. Men wore them, and women too when it was cold or when they were travelling.

Then came armour, first chain mail and then plate. If you’re strapping hunks of metal on and riding around in them for hours, you don’t want hunks of cloth creasing underneath it, so clothing for wealthy and powerful men adapted. Close-fitting one-piece lower garments answered the need for a measure of comfort when fully armoured. And, since one hardly wishes to hide the evidence of one’s social status under a long robe, tunics for the knightly class crept up to waist height and became doublets.

The parting of the ways

From that point on, the clothes of upper class men and women parted ways for centuries. The men’s hose and the breeches they developed to wear over them evolved into some fairly wonderful forms, and women went on wearing gowns.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that women could wear trousers to a business meeting or a classy social event without attracting comment and censure.

Culottes, sans-culottes, and men’s fashion

Breeches, by then reasonably form fitting and fastened just below the knee, continued as the wear for gentlemen until the French Revolution. The French called them culottes, and the sans-culottes, the men in working men’s trousers (called pantaloons in England) rather than breeches, became the heroes of the revolution.

In England, the fashionable adopted French pantaloons, if not French politics, as the 18th Century became the 19th. By the Regency, breeches were consigned to soft leather breeches for riding and silk for evening wear. And, of course, the unfashionable, the conservative, and the elderly.

Pantaloons slowly took over, or trousers as they came to be called. That term was first used in the military, and probably became common usage as the soldiers and sailors of England came home from the Napoleonic wars.

By the 1820s, the term was common, but ‘pants’ is an Americanism from the 1830s.

Keep it buttoned, darling

So there you have it. A brief history of men’s lower wear. Skipping shorts and knickerbockers, not to mention overalls and jeans. But then, why wouldn’t you?

Oh, and fly buttoning versus fall buttoning? The single row of buttons up the front first appeared some time in the 1830s and became common around the middle of the century, though it co-existed with fall buttoning for quite some time. (The fall became wider, requiring a row of at least four buttons along the waist line.) In case you wondered, Zippers didn’t get into our pants until the 1930s.

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Folklore ways to find the man of your dreams

Folklore has so many different ways to divine a future spouse, or at least, most commonly, a future husband. It makes sense that girls were more the target for such foretelling methods than men. For much of history and in most cultures, marriage put a girl into the hands of her husband or her husband’s family. When husbands could do almost anything they liked, short of murder, a girl might be wise to be wary, and anxious to know what was ahead of her.

Divination on certain nights

In my current work-in-progress, it is Easter, and coming up to St Mark’s Eve (24 April, which in that year was a week after Easter), when good Lincolnshire maidens wait in the church porch to see who passes them at midnight. In other parts of England, they might expect to see the shades of those who will die during the year. A Lincolnshire girl could see those visions, too, but she might also see her future spouse, if she is going to marry during the year.

Another night for such divination is this Saturday, St Agnes Eve, 21 January. In Scotland, girls would go out to throw grain, saying:

“ Agnes sweet, and Agnes fair,
Hither, hither, now repair;
Bonny Agnes, let me see
The lad who is to marry me. ”

The shadow of their destined groom would be seen in their mirror later that night.

In other parts of the country, girls would fast. If they kept St Agnes Fast, their future husband would appear in a dream.

Midsummer Eve, 23 June, was the time to lay out a clean cloth with bread, cheese, and ale, and sit down with the street door open. The girl’s future husband would then, according to folklore, enter the room and drink the ale, bow, refill the glass,  bow again, and leave. That’s a pretty detailed vision.

Halloween came at the time of apple harvest, and in some parts of the country girls would bob for apples, then put their apple under their pillow to fetch a dream of the man they would marry. Others would walk upstairs looking in a mirror to see a vision of their future spouse walking behind them.

And on New Year’s Eve, some maidens would sweep the room backwards while looking into a mirror.

Finally, girls had an opportunity every new moon to try this rhyme:

New moon, true moon,
Dressed in blue,
If I should marry a man,
Or he should marry me,
What in the name of love,
Will his name be?

Or any other time of the year

But if you couldn’t wait for one of those special evenings, you could try one of these:

  • When you go to bed, place your shoes at right angles to one another, saying “Hoping this night my true love to see, I place my shoes in the form of a T”
  • Pass a piece of wedding cake three times through the bride’s wedding ring, then put it under your pillow (or, in some places, a piece of cheese)
  • Knit your left garter around your right stocking and keep knotting, at each line of the following rhyme tying another knot:

This knot I knit,
To know the thing I know not yet,
That I may see The man that shall my husband be;
How he goes, and what he wears,
And what he does all days and years.

  • If you’re a Shropshire lass, fetch a half-brick from the nearest churchyard, and put that under your pillow
  • Lay a four leaf clover under each corner of your sheet
  • Eat a salt herring before you go to sleep
  • Count thirteen stars for thirteen nights
  • Clip your fingernails and drop the clippings into the flame of your lamp. Then hang your shift (petticoat) over the lamp, and while the fingernails are burning, the shadow of your future husband will appear on the shift.
  • Peel an apple and throw the peel over your shoulder. The letter it falls into will be the initials of your future spouse.
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Messier than fiction

I’ve been reading — or more accurately dipping in and out of — the trial transcripts of the Annesley case.

It was the sensation of 1743. A sailor returned from many years in the American colonies with the claim that he had been kidnapped at the age of twelve and sold into indentured servitude by his uncle after the death of his father, the Earl of Anglesea.

Said uncle had inherited his brother’s title, and strenuously denied that the sailor was his nephew, that he had anything to do with the disappearance of his nephew, and that his nephew was the legitimate son (and therefore heir) to his brother.

We’re all familiar with the story of the wicked uncle who arranges for the rightful heir to be sold away overseas in order to embezzle his heritage. Robert Louis Stephenson made it part of our literary heritage in Kidnapped (possibly prompted by the Annesley case), but even before that we see it in folk tales. It pops up again and again in all kinds of genres. I’ve used a variant myself in Magnus’ Christmas Angel.

The Annesley case bears out the truism that truth is stranger, and certainly less neat, than fiction.

James Annesley claimed to be, and in fact was proved to be, the son of Arthur Annesley, Baron Altham, and his wife Mary Sheffield.

Altham was, even by the standards of the time, a loose living sort of a person. Did his wife take exception? Perhaps. He threw her out of the home, keeping her two-year old son. Four years later, one of his mistresses persuaded him to throw the boy out too, and James was apparently left to more or less raise himself from the age of six.

He must have had some support somewhere, because later several of his school-friends recognised him, and gave evidence about his identity to the courts.

Altham died when James was twelve, and shortly after that, Richard Annesley (Uncle Dick) found the boy and sent him to Delaware to work as an indentured servant.

Later claims that the boy was not legitimate foundered at least in part on the question of why Uncle Dick would have bothered to get rid of someone who could not threaten his claim to the Altham title, and later to the title of Earl of Anglesea, inherited from his cousin.

James returned in 1740, but his claims didn’t become public until 1742. The case notes mention a number of attempts on his life, which James blamed on Uncle Dick, whose comfy state was clearly threatened by his nuisance of a nephew, who had not had the good manners to die in Delaware.

After hearing many witnesses (and an incredible barrage of lies), the Irish court found in favour of James, but that wasn’t the end of it. His estates were returned to him, but Uncle Dick took an appeal and continued to hold the title while it was working its way slowly through the courts. (But note the comment below from a correspondent.)

As an interesting side note, the Annesley vs Anglesea case is the basis for the principle of lawyer-client privilege. The court ruled that a solicitor could not be called on to testify about whether or not his former client took a mistress, and laid out three of the reasons still used today to support the principle.

James died in 1760, and Uncle Dick in 1761. Uncle Dick’s son did not inherit the Anglesea title, which became extinct with the death of the wicked uncle.

Truth is considerably messier than fiction.

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Lawlessness and bounty hunting in the late-Georgian

The Bow Street Magistrates Court

(This is a repeat of an article I wrote for Caroline Warfield’s blog in June.)

Crime was a personal affair

Before 1829, our modern idea of a police force, and of one law for all, simply didn’t exist. In the pre 19th Century world, crime was a private matter, an offence against the victim. Doing something about it was up to the victim, though if the crime was a felony, the victim could expect help from constables and magistrates.

The offence might be settled between the disputants, or it might go to court to be judged by a magistrate or a jury. If the offence was against the Crown, the King was the offended party, and therefore one of the disputants, a convention we remember in the way we talk about a case as being Jones v Rex (King) or Brown v Regina (Queen). It was still a private affair, a personal interaction.

In our modern world, crime is seen as something that disturbs the public peace and disrupts the smooth running of society. Our police and the courts are charged with restoring social harmony. It is a very different model.

No one wanted a standing police force

The system worked very well in rural England in times of peace, provided you had a fair and reasonable local magistrate. People didn’t move around much. The local magistrate probably knew everyone, and could tell who needed a swift kick to the rear, who should be shipped off to the army and the navy, and who was unregenerate and nothing but trouble. And if he was in doubt, he had plenty of local people to talk to.

The idea of a central police force did not appeal to very many people. The middle and working classes saw such a force as a potential instrument of oppression. Royalty strongly disliked the idea of a standing army. And the gentry felt central control of policing would threaten their individual liberties and their place in local government.

Enter the bounty hunter

Eventually, as we know, the collapse of the traditional village social structure and the increasing mobility of the population made a police force inevitable, and three influential people made it palatable. Henry Fielding founded the Bow Street Runners. Patrick Colquhoun created a philosophy of policing that quieted people’s fears, and Sir Robert Peel established the first modern police force.

But before all of that, thief takers hunted across county lines to capture villains and bring them back to face justice.

Thief takers worked for a reward. Later, and on the other side of the Atlantic, they would be known as bounty hunters. The government, or perhaps a private individual, would post a reward, and off they’d go.

And they had an extremely disreputable reputation:

…the more corrupt thief-takers went further: they blackmailed criminals with threats of prosecution if they failed to pay protection money. Some even became “thief-makers” by encouraging gullible men to commit crimes, and then apprehending and prosecuting them in order to collect the reward. Such practices illustrate the point that not all “crimes” prosecuted at the Old Bailey had actually taken place; some prosecutions were malicious. [Old Bailey Online]

In the early 18th Century, Jonathan Wild, who styled himself ‘Thief taker General of England and Ireland’ was tried and convicted for receiving stolen goods after a decade of dominating the London criminal underworld.

No wonder my hero of Revealed in Mist, David Wakefield, wanted to be called an enquiry agent!

Revealed in Mist

Prue’s job is to uncover secrets, but she hides a few of her own. When she is framed for murder and cast into Newgate, her one-time lover comes to her rescue. Will revealing what she knows help in their hunt for blackmailers, traitors, and murderers? Or threaten all she holds dear?

Enquiry agent David solves problems for the ton, but will never be one of them. When his latest case includes his legitimate half-brothers as well as the lover who left him months ago, he finds the past and the circumstances of his birth difficult to ignore. Danger to Prue makes it impossible.

See my book page for more about the book, buy links, and the first two chapters.

Meet David

From within the protective camouflage of the gaggle of companions, Prudence Virtue watched her sometime partner and one-night-only lover drift around the banquet hall. No-one else saw him. Like the shadow he named himself, he skirted the edges of the pools of candle light, but even when his self-appointed duties moved him close to a group of guests, they overlooked him. None of the privileged, not even the host and hostess, noticed one extra footman.

He was very good. He had the walk, the submissive bend of the head, the lowered eyes. Even Prue—herself hiding as just one more brown-clad, unimpressive companion among a dozen others, waiting patiently in an alcove for the commands of an employer—did not detect him for her first half hour in the room.

But Prue’s body was wiser than her mind, and left her restless in his presence until her eyes caught so many times on a single footman among dozens she began to take notice. And she saw Shadow, for the first time since that disastrous morning five months before.

On the slim chance Shadow was not here for the same meeting as her, Prue stayed out of sight in the back of the alcove as the time for her to make her move approached. He had left the room several times in the hour she had been watching. With luck… Yes. There he went again. Now, if several of the dowagers would call at once… Done. Moving to where any of three or four ladies might be giving her instructions, she hurried away as if running an errand.

The key, the man she knew as Tolliver had taught her, was to fit into people’s preconceived ideas of the universe; to appear to be someone doing something they had an explanation for. The key was to blend into the background of the story they were telling themselves. ‘Don’t notice me. I’m just a companion running an errand,’ her behaviour said. And five minutes after she left, not one of them would remember what she looked like or where she went.

Revealed in Mist was released on 13 December.

 

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Christmas presents in Georgian England

No presents, and no tree to put them under. Not on a Regency Christmas Day

Authors of Regency stories face an interesting challenge when writing a Christmas novel. Our modern readers are so accustomed to the association between gifts and Christmas Day that historical accuracy can be jarring for them.

Not that people didn’t give presents during the long Christmas season before the Victorians picked up a few German customs and marketed them through newspaper columns on the habits of royalty, Dickens stories, and popular magazines. People in the northern hemisphere have always given presents at some point during that season when winter seems as if it is going to last forever, but at last the night of the winter solstice passes and the days slowly begin to grow longer.

The day varied. Solstice night itself, the first day (or week) of the new year. People gave their children food treats hoarded against the feast, and gifts of dolls and carved animals, often home made. Wealthier people very likely gave richer gifts, as happens today. And kings and other leaders undoubtedly gave gifts to their followers, who would judge their personal standing with the boss by the size of the present.

Christian missionaries didn’t invent gift giving and feasting in the darkest part of the year. But they did Christianise it, ascribing the feast to the birth of Christ. And boy, was it a feast. In medieval times, people partied for 12 days (after fasting all December).

But they didn’t give presents on Christmas Day (or Christmas Eve, either). Instead, Christmas was a time for church going and feasting. The 24 day fast might have disappeared with the dissolution of the monasteries and the foundation of the Church of England, but the food blowout on Christmas Day remained, with all but the very poorest of the poor managing a special meal to mark the day.

The Puritans during the Commonwealth knocked off even that. No Christmas at all. But the Restoration meant all those Christmas customs crept back out of the shadows for people to rejoice in once again.

St Stephen’s Feast Day was the traditional day for giving to servants and tradespeople, and the needy (as good King Wenceslas did). The Feast of Stephen is 26th December. Family members didn’t get presents then, though. They had to wait.

In Scotland, 31st December, or New Year’s Eve, was gift day. English children had a few more days to go; family and friends were given presents on Twelfth Night, the day before the Feast of the Epiphany (6th January).

Different places, different customs. Children in various parts of Northern Europe received their presents from St Nicholas of Myrna on 5th December, the eve of his feast day or on the day itself. St Nicholas was born in France and buried in Italy, and quite why he favoured Dutch and German children with a visit is a mystery lost in history. He visited Central Europe, too, but not until 19th December, his feast day there.

In modern times, all these visits have been moved to 24th December, which makes the poor bishop’s task much harder. However, he has inherited Odin’s magic reindeer to pull his sleigh, so that must help.

Greek children had St Basil, whose feast day is 1st January. He arrived in the night on New Year’s Eve, leaving presents, and the families would exchange the gifts they’d bought or made at or after the New Year’s Day feast.

To make things even more complicated, different countries moved their calendars from Julian to Gregorian at different times.

All of which presents a minefield for a conscientious author.

My Christmas novellas include Candle’s Christmas Chair, Gingerbread Bride, and two novellas in Holly and Hopeful Hearts: A Suitable Husband and The Bluestocking and the Barbarian. Holly and Hopeful Hearts is on special at 99c, but the sale ends soon.

See my books page for more information.

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