It’s something of a shock to find one of the former occupants of a client’s property languishing in the county gaol 150 years ago, arraigned for debt rather than first-degree murder, but locked up nevertheless. Punishments then seem unnecessarily harsh by today’s standards with people being imprisoned for stealing items as small as a handkerchief or as necessary as a loaf of bread, while conviction for serious crimes led to transportation or death.
In rural areas, suspected criminals were apprehended by the parish constable and detained in the local lock-up pending their court appearance. These buildings were sometimes a tiny windowless building or even a cage near the centre of the village or little more than a shed provided by a local farmer. Lock-ups were also used for detaining drunks and troublemakers overnight to protect local people and property.
Anyone subsequently incarcerated in one of the larger urban prisons with appalling overcrowding and insanitary conditions may have yearned for the peace and solitude of the parish lock-up, the taunts of village children and loss of self-esteem in the local community notwithstanding. Life for the prisoner’s family would have been difficult with little prospect of relief from the parish to replace the loss of earnings, while whatever degree of respectability they may have had would have been lost or severely diminished, perhaps leading to ostracisation by unsympathetic neighbours.
Court and prison records give brief details of each convict’s crime and punishment and the date of their release or acquittal, but perhaps far more interesting are the newspaper reports of cases which include details of the crime, the allegations of the prosecution, and the appeal of the defendant.
The debtor in the present case was named and shamed, but his debts were paid by his family and he was able to return to the village after a month, no doubt shaken by his experience. Thanks to the survival and availability of newspapers and other records this unfortunate mishap in his life has provided excitement and interest to the present owner of his property.