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Crime in 18th century Bath

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November 2020

Italian renaissance architects of the fifteenth century loved doodling their concepts of the ideal city. Cities full of public spaces surrounded by regular, symmetrical, grand buildings in the form of squares and circles in the classical style. In the eighteenth century John Wood decided to build one of these ideal cities in England, at Bath. It was to be a place of reason, regulation and refinement, a place of stability, law and order, for people of ‘quality’. The only problem with this idea is that people of ‘quality’ tend to attract people of inequality. Hence the subject of Prof. Steve Poole’s presentation for the November Zoom of Thornbury Local History and Archaeological Society, ‘Crime in Eighteenth-Century Bath’.

In 1700, Bath was home to less than 3,000 people and bounded by medieval city walls. It was run by the Corporation, an oligarchy of bigwigs who had jurisdiction within the boundary of their small city. By 1800 there were 27,000 residents, expanding northwards to Queen Square, the Circus and Royal Crescent, eastwards over Pulteney Bridge, and south to the low ground by the river, a much less salubrious area. Wealthy winter visitors flocked in for the ‘season’, inevitably drawing beggars and pickpockets behind them.

Contemporary guide books would have you believe that Bath was a peaceful and refined retreat, that ‘depends for a successful season on the continuance of peace’, that ‘has virtually no trades or manufactures’ (i.e. no lower classes), that indeed ‘is one of the politest places in the kingdom’. Local newspapers told a different story. They liked nothing better that to print lurid details of crimes and criminals. Steve Poole found over 2,500 cases of assault from just 11 years at the end of the century.

Revolutions in industry and commerce had brought quantities of fancy goods within easy reach, and affluent Bath had opportunities aplenty for thieving. The new shopping emporia of Milsom St. displayed their wares openly on the street, tempting paying customers and shoplifters alike. One of the fancy goods that featured prominently was lace. Jane Austen’s aunt was prosecuted for allegedly shoplifting lace, and suffered 8 months on remand at Ilchester prison. Perhaps that is why the long-suffering Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice pleads despairingly to his wife ‘No lace, no lace, Mrs. Bennet, I beg you’.

The Corporation couldn’t cope with the growth of crime in the city. They had just 4 constables and 25 night watchmen, who were lampooned as old men capable only of crying the hours while, as the Bath Herald stated, ‘the streets at night are infested with thieves’. The jurisdiction of the Corporation was restricted by the borough charter to the old medieval boundary, but the city had expanded far beyond this. The thieves lived outside the jurisdiction down by the river in notorious Avon St. Another problem was that the victim of crime had to pay for information and for prosecution, often making it not worth the effort. Essentially you needed to catch a criminal in the act and drag them personally down to the magistrate’s office.

The Bath Society of Guardians was set up to provide members, for an annual subscription of 5 shillings, with the costs of prosecution. The society was a success and Steve found a bundle of witness statements highlighting a particular example. A gang from Avon St. were thieving anything and everything they could lift. One member had stolen a leg of pork, and while he cooked dinner he told the others where they could find more. They stole hams, hens, blankets, a saddle and a yoke. We know the details because they immediately grassed each other up when apprehended. They had also stolen lead drainpipes, and trunks (no doubt full of lace) off the back of a stagecoach. They were successfully prosecuted, some members being transported and some sent to fight the French.

It was not until the end of the Georgian period in 1836 that an effective way of dealing with crime came about. As part of the reforms of the 1830s, local authorities had their boundaries redefined and were required by law to elect a local council with the responsibility of maintaining an effective watch and a paid police force. If only those Italian renaissance architects had thought in the first place to include a police station.

Many thanks to Steve Poole for his fascinating talk.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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