Craven, crime and convicts: a look at a hundred years of York Assizes

Mary Slater
 JOURNAL 
 2021 
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

This article includes some material presented in past years for the Settle and District Community News, the North Craven Heritage Trust Journal and Earby Chronicles of the Earby and District Local History Society.

From the 14th century up to 1971 a system of justice known as Assize hearings was in existence in England. Judges usually worked in pairs and around circuits between county towns or towns with gaols, several times a year. They were on royal commissions of the peace or of gaol delivery (to try prisoners), or also to hear and determine serious cases not heard by local courts. Miscreants from our local area fed into the York Assizes, the judges being on the Northern Circuit. A Calendar of Felons was published before the Assizes, listing people awaiting trial. The General Gaol Delivery was published afterwards and listed those sent to or back to gaol (York Castle) with notice of their sentences. These can be found in North Yorkshire County Record Office or York Explore (York Library). Entries do not always state the home area of the prisoner, so research has been limited to those that do state a local connection. Sometimes there is a clue in the name of a known local justice who had been involved - for example in our area there was P. W. Overend. Assize minute books, gaol books, indictments and witness depositions can be found in The National Archives and provide valuable material for many of the cases. Other sources of information include family history websites (including for convict registers and emigration details), old newspapers and published books.

Between 1688 and 1815 the criminal law system in England was known as the bloody code and for good reason. At the start of this period around fifty offences carried the death penalty, but this rose to some 225 by the early 1800s. This applied to the secular courts with the clergy being tried under canon law, with more lenient sentencing. One way of avoiding the harsher sentencing was to provide proof of being a clergyman. One test of this was to demonstrate that you were literate. In due course well educated lay defendants were able to use the literacy test and claim ‘benefit of the clergy’ and avoid the death penalty if found guilty. This privilege was then extended to women in 1691 and eventually to all first-time offenders. However, this also involved branding of the thumb to prevent people using this defence more than once. With increasing wealth and crime associated with property parliament made more offences ‘non-clergyable’ and so re-instated the harsher penalties of the law.

Whipping

Whipping was a punishment which was on the increase in the second half of the 1700s for grand larceny, the theft of goods worth one shilling or more. It was felt by the authorities to be a good compromise between the death penalty or transportation, and over-leniency. The aim was to shame by public humiliation in front of people who knew you. Often carried out at the back of a moving cart, the number of strokes unspecified, a prisoner could only hope for a short route and a sympathetic constable.

In 1787 Henry Wood, a labourer from the Forest of Bowland, was ‘charged by the oath of William Huddleston of Slaidburn on suspicion of felony in stealing out of his shop, at two separate times, about eight yards of cotton velvet and upwards of two yards of cotton of a yellow colour …’. Henry was found ‘guilty of grand larceny within the benefit of the statute’. Shoplifting of goods worth more than five shillings had been a capital offence since 1699 and there was an automatic death sentence, but it was seldom enforced. Shopkeepers did not want the expense of prosecution, and they often got their goods back. Also, ‘within benefit of statute’ meant that the prisoner could plead ‘benefit of clergy’. So Wood’s sentence was ‘to be publickly whipped at Settle on Tuesday the twenty-seventh day of March instant and afterwards imprisoned and continued in gaol for the space of six calendar months and then discharged’.

The Pillory

Offences that were punished by the pillory included those which caused public indignation, such as blackmail, cheating, confidence trickery and perjury. Sometimes a prisoner could be pelted with stones causing serious injury, or conversely, the crowd might even release him if it felt he had been misused by the authorities. Exhibition for an hour in a market place with hands and head fixed in a wooden structure, or stocks, was usual, and often followed by a further punishment - a fine, imprisonment, hard labour or even transportation.

In 1754 William Demaine of Hellifield was found ‘guilty of wilful and corrupt perjury’ while giving evidence at the Knaresborough Quarter Sessions. The sentence from York Assizes was ‘Let him be set once in the Pillory in the Market Place there, and also at Settle on some market days within the space of three months next ensuing, for the space of one whole hour at each place, betwixt the hours of twelve and one o’clock at noon, with a paper over his head denoting his crime, be imprisoned for six months and until he pay a fine of six shillings and eight-pence and give security for his good behaviour for two years in the penalty of fifty pounds to be taken by any of his Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the West Riding’. The Calendar of Felons in the Castle of York dated 17 March 1755 recorded that he was now in gaol, having suffered the pillory part of the sentence.

Transportation to America

Convicts had been transported in the 1600s but it was in the following century that it came to be seen as an effective alternative to the death sentence. James Hargreaves from Colne was at Thornton-in-Craven races in 1765 when he realised his pocket had been picked and he had lost a silver watch. It had a china face, and was marked with the maker’s name and number, and opened with a pricker key. He therefore ‘caused the said watch to be published at Thornton Church the Sunday following, offering a guinea reward’. He also sent a message to several clock and watch makers, in particular to William Hargreaves, a Quaker clockmaker in Lancaster from whom he had bought the watch, in case it was brought in for sale or repair. Unfortunately, the messenger forgot the watch number, so William Hargreaves was unable to do anything. Having heard nothing by the following April, James Hargreaves again contacted William Hargreaves, now in Settle, giving full details of the watch, and in due course received a reply that William Hargreaves had seen the watch in the hands of a man called Greenbank who had said he lived at or near Thornton.

Local JP Overend examined Greenbank and his daughter Esther to get their side of the story. Esther said that she had seen a watch in a field and her mother picked it up and ‘put it into her bosom’. At home, Greenbank said his wife had told him she had found a watch. After making some statements during the trial Greenbank was charged on suspicion of taking a watch, value 30s (thus less than the 40s attracting the death penalty). On 2 March 1768, he was found guilty of grand larceny within the benefit of the statute and sentenced ‘to be transported to some of His Majesty’s Colonies and Plantations in America for the term of 7 years’.

By August 1768 Overend began taking sworn statements at Settle and Bentham concerning sheep stealing, including those from Richard Craven and William Wildman. Two other men were implicated by Craven in sheep-stealing expeditions, Craven implying that they, not he, were the instigators. Nevertheless, Richard Craven was committed to the Castle of York to await trial. In November 1768 William Wildman was also committed, charged in this case by Richard Craven with stealing with himself, certain of the sheep! This may have been a ploy by Craven to get a statutory £10 reward for any person prosecuting an offender to conviction. In the event three of the offenders were discharged, but Craven was to hang. However, he was reprieved and his sentence was commuted to 14 years transportation to America.

Some local malefactors at this period were, however, fortunate in avoiding the severest forms of penalty. In 1773, Overend was busy again in Settle, examining four men suspected of counterfeiting coin of the realm. Counterfeiting gold or silver coinage was a capital offence - treason, by reason of the theft of the Monarch’s likeness.

The story of the Halifax coiners is well known and many were arrested and hanged. But in the early 1770s Ribblesdale also had a group of coiners who clearly had not learned the lesson from Calderdale. They were two men in the metal-working trade, William Buck of Settle, whitesmith and his cousin and assistant Michael Buck of Dent, a blacksmith, together with Anthony Eglin of Horton, husbandman and James Hill of Litton, a cooper. In 1773 the men were charged with producing counterfeit guineas. Some cases only proceeded if Crown law officers were sure of a guilty verdict – and even so, many of these cases failed. So it is not such a surprise that Eglin was found not guilty, and all four of the Ribblesdale coiners were discharged. Their full story can be read in a previous issue of the Journal (2013).

Between the transportation periods

Transportation to America ceased in 1775, with the start of their was of independence, and gaols quickly filled. Now some prisoners had to be kept on hulks in the Thames, some were freed with conditions, some were made to join the army or navy, and some were sentenced to hard labour: this continued until Australia became the new dumping ground for convicts in 1787.

One night in early 1786 the dwelling-house of Thomas Paxton, innkeeper, in Long Preston was broken into, and some haberdashery goods which were being stored there by a couple of packmen were stolen. In May, a number of items, which were identified by one of the packmen, were found at Easingwold in possession of James Braithwaite, a 30 year old hawker and pedlar from Bramham, near Leeds. He was charged with ‘having feloniously and burglariously broke and entered the dwelling-house of Thomas Paxton of Long Preston, innkeeper, and feloniously and burglariously stealing thereout’ the various goods described above. The wording of the charge is important. Robbery involved the use of violence, theft depended on stealth, but burglary, the breaking into a house at night, had long been a capital offence. He was found guilty of stealing goods valued at 40s, the amount at which a death sentence became mandatory. He was executed by hanging at York’s Tyburn without Micklegate Bar, with four others, all younger than 30 years old, on 19 August 1786.

Transportation to New South Wales

Transportation to Australia began with the sailing in 1787 of the First Fleet of eleven ships to found a penal settlement. Because the government’s intention was ultimately to develop a colony, it seems that proportionately more women were sent ‘down under’ than were punished at home. In 1789 the first all-female convict ship was despatched and others followed.

In the mid-1790s there were adverse weather conditions and harvest failures. Hunger led to crime, and a number of suspects from the Earby district were committed to the Castle of York in 1795. They included John Crook, a labourer, charged with breaking into the Earby corn-mill and stealing 30 lb of wheat flour. In Crook’s confession he listed other substantial thefts from the mill and many opportunistic thefts in the locality committed with a variety of accomplices. On one occasion he took a quantity of flour from the mill and divided it with his sister, Betty Crook of Earby. Betty also appeared at the Assizes charged with theft of flour.

Some of the suspects were found not guilty, but some were found guilty of grand larceny and that meant a sentence of being transported for seven years. In practice this meant transfer to the hulks off Portsmouth: they were to provide convict labour rebuilding Cumberland Fort, which guarded Langston Harbour east of the town and the dockyard itself.

However, the 36 year old Betty Crook was sentenced to be transported for fourteen years. She was put on board the Indispensable, an early all-female convict transport to New South Wales which sailed from Portsmouth in November 1795 and arrived in Port Jackson (Sydney) the following April. In due course she was assigned as a convict servant to a man named Isaac Tarr. He was a Marine Private who had travelled to Australia in 1787-8 on board the Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet which carried the newly appointed Governor, Arthur Phillip, who was to find a site for the new colony.

In 1797, Isaac married Betty at Parramatta and was granted 40 acres of land. Betty and Isaac had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1799. In due course the younger Elizabeth married Isaac’s then convict servant. It is clear that by this time the whole family was involved with the production of lime. Much building construction was going on and lime for mortar was desperately short. Some limestone was sent out from Britain as ballast in ships, but local ancient aboriginal shell middens were used to supply the lime kiln and shells were even dredged from the sea. The problem was not solved until the coming of railways later in the century brought stone from the Australian interior. In 1819 (by which time Betty would have been aged about 59) she was being paid at frequent intervals for lime for Government use.

1822 saw a General Muster in the Colony and Betty was listed as Free by Servitude, but that year she was petitioning the new governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane, to be put on the stores at Parramatta, which meant she no longer felt able to be self-sufficient. She said she was aged and infirm, and her husband Isaac had lost the use of his limbs and was unable to feed himself. She was then given permission ‘to be victualled from the Parramatta stores as an object of charity’. By now with three grandchildren, Isaac died in 1828 and Betty a year later aged about 70. A tough life, but probably no more so than if she had remained in Earby.

An article in the Journal (2019) charted the result of a highway robbery which took place between Burton in Lonsdale and Ingleton. James Metcalfe, a 23 year-old farmer’s son of Bentham township, attacked George Burrow of Westhouse, and relieved him of clothes and money. James appeared at the York Assizes on 28 July 1827 and was found guilty. A death sentence was inevitable for highway robbery. However, clemency was shown and it was commuted to transportation for life. After passing through the aptly named prison hulk Retribution, moored at Woolwich, he left London for Port Jackson (Sydney), New South Wales, on 23 November 1827 arriving in Sydney after a passage of 111 days. By 1837 he was assigned to work elsewhere and in 1838 absconded. His life ended in 1840: cause of death ‘accidentally killed - intemperance’.

Transportation to Tasmania

From the early 1800s to the abolition of transportation in 1853, the main Australian convict destination was Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). At least two local men: Richard Hartley (aged 28, married and a weaver or hawker) and John Thackwray (a single man of 20 and of agricultural trade) were sent to Tasmania. In November 1840 a Skipton drover was on the road travelling from Settle to Long Preston. He met the two who, after some conversation, knocked him down and robbed him of 4s in silver, and some coppers. They were soon caught and appeared at York Assizes in the following March, Hartley pleading not guilty and Thackwray guilty. However, they were both convicted, to be transported for 15 years to Tasmania. The first port of call for Hartley was the prison hulk Fortitude moored on the Thames at Chatham, where he arrived in April 1841. Thackwray found himself on the Justitia hulk at Woolwich.

Life in these stripped-down and patched-up old wooden fighting vessels was tough and degrading in the extreme. Convicts from now on were known only by a number. They would wear 12 lb of iron ankle rings linked by cord to the waist-belt. There was heavy work to be done – emptying barges, or working in the Woolwich arsenal. Floggings were frequent. However, in some ways, life on the hulks was preferable to that they would face in the colonial depots.

After one month Thackwray boarded HM convict ship Westmorland for his 112 day journey to Hobart. Hartley boarded the larger convict ship Barrosa which arrived at Hobart in mid-January 1842.

Thackwray absconded from his first depot and was punished by hard labour in chains for nine months, building a causeway, and having his probationary period extended. He absconded again and received 75 lashes and at the end of January 1842, still only 4½ months after landing, he was sent to the coal mines on the Tasman Peninsula. This was a probation station of the severest regime – long shifts, hard labour and appalling conditions. Here he was guilty of disobeying orders, receiving yet another extension to his probationary time. However, the system was breaking him – he was noted later in the year as quiet and sick, dying on 16 November 1842.

Hartley was sent firstly to the coal mines, and then to near Launceston where he worked was on settlers’ land, road and bridges, and where he absconded three times during 1842. As a result he received an extra year’s probation, 50 lashes, time in the House of Correction and 90 days hard labour on the tread-wheel. He was then sent to the coal mines again. Misdemeanours continued to result in punishment but eventually in October 1849 he was granted a Ticket of Leave, enabling him to work for wages, and a Conditional Pardon followed on 28 June 1853.

However he was not finished with the punishment system. One year later he was tried for stealing a pair of shoes from a house, and received a sentence of imprisonment and two years hard labour in Launceston Gaol, but was quickly sent to prisoner barracks at a logging station on Tasman Peninsula. In December 1855, fifteen long hard years after that momentary incident on the road to Long Preston, Richard Hartley was ‘Discharged to Freedom’. There are further records of his imprisonment for 10 months for having meat unlawfully in his possession, and finally, his death in 1873.

House of Correction

Acts of Parliament in the time of Elizabeth I required the setting up of Houses of Correction for the provision of work for the poor and vagrants, and in 1594 a wealthy local gentleman left £20 in his will towards the building of a House of Correction in Wakefield. At first there was little concern with prisoner welfare, but very gradually over the years there were reforms and at last, in 1800, some extensions to the buildings and improvements to the regime were initiated.

In 1816 Lydia Hunter, a tinker’s wife, was charged with stealing a £20 Bill of Exchange from the house of Stephen Dawson of Paley Green in Giggleswick. For her grand larceny she was found guilty and sentenced to death by the judge, Mr Justice Bayley. Her sentence was commuted to imprisonment and hard labour for two years at the Wakefield House of Correction. One commentator wrote that if Mr Justice Bayley had one fault – it was his leniency!

A few years later, in 1822, ten sheep belonging to Mrs Rebecca Clapham, a wealthy widow of Stackhouse, were reduced to nine overnight. A search at Settle Shambles ‘…. in consequence of some information’ revealed a skin in the possession of Henry Hargraves, a butcher there. The next day the local JP, Anthony Lister, examined Hargraves, who said that a man called Robert Mason had offered to sell him a sheep’s skin. Mason was was found guilty of stealing the sheep. Mrs Clapham asked for mercy for him but the sentence (as it had to be for sheep-stealing until 1832) was death by hanging. At these particular Assizes, forty prisoners were capitally convicted by Mr Justice Holroyd, who later recommended many of them to his Majesty’s mercy. All except two were then reprieved, Mason being sent to the Wakefield House of Correction for two years.

In 1818, the House of Correction received a visitation, from two members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) - Joseph John Gurney and his sister Elizabeth Fry - who reported that though the prison was clean and the prisoners well-fed, there was severe over-crowding; there wasn’t enough work (principally weaving and wool-dressing) to go round, leading to idle hands and corrupt associations. Improvements were completed in 1823, just in time for Robert Mason’s arrival. A treadmill, invented by the eminent civil engineer and millwright William Cubitt, was installed to grind corn, the prisoners being paid for the work but receiving only a part of their earnings - one half before trial, and one quarter after conviction, the remainder going to the Riding and the Governor. Towards the end of 1825, as Mason left, the Visiting Justices reported general good conduct, health and moral improvement among the prisoners.

At the Assizes of March 1852, 31 year old Mary Hodgson was charged with having concealed the birth of her child at Arncliffe in November 1851 by secretly burning the body, and Richard Jaques, aged 76, of abetting her. Under an Infanticide Act in 1624, a single woman trying to hide the death of a baby was considered to have committed murder. The only way out was to try and prove it was still-born. However, increasingly through the 1700s the law became more understanding, viewing such women as victims rather than criminals. One defence was to claim that the birth was not concealed - the pregnancy was widely known and preparations had been made, alternatively it could be claimed that the woman was not of sound mind. An Act of 1803 allowed that women acquitted of murder (thus spared the death penalty) could be charged instead with concealment, leading to imprisonment only.

Jaques was a lead miner and Mary Hodgson was his housekeeper. The Assize hearing followed an inquest in December at which the jury had reached a verdict of ‘Found dead’. Importantly it was said that Mary was never thought to be of very sound mind. A female neighbour visiting their house in November was told by Jaques that Mary was unwell upstairs and could not be seen; however there was a suspicious bowl of something which Jaques seemed anxious to conceal. Shortly after, the neighbour returned after noticing an offensive smell and found Mary and Jaques by a large fire. The neighbour contacted a surgeon, Mr Robinson, who went to the house with a constable, and putting his walking stick into the fire discovered parts of a child’s body. However, there was no proof the child had been born alive and therefore no proof of murder. The jury found the prisoners guilty of endeavouring to conceal the birth, but recommended Mary to mercy on the grounds she had been persuaded to act as she did by Jaques. She received three months hard labour in the House of Correction, and Jaques twelve months.

Conclusion

The records of the York Assizes provide many local examples of the proceedings of justice –demonstrating that ideas about justice and punishment changed significantly between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries.

General references

  • ancestry.co.uk, ancestry.com.au, records.nsw.gov.au, various online Australian convict sources
  • Calendars of felons and records of gaol delivery, Castle of York 1765-1843 (on microfilm). North Yorkshire County Record Office, Northallerton
  • Calendars of felons and records of gaol delivery, Castle of York 1785-1851 (hard copy). York Explore, York.
  • Emsley, C., Hancock, T., Shoemaker, R., “Crime and justice - crimes tried at the Old Bailey”, Old Bailey Proceedings online (www.oldbaileyonline.org)
  • Herber, M. D., Ancestral trails. Sutton 1997
  • Knipe, W., Criminal chronology of York Castle. C.L. Burdekin 1867
  • McLynn, F., Crime and punishment in eighteenth-century England. OUP 1991
  • yorkcastleprison.org.uk

Particular references

Demaine/Wood:

  • Settle and District Community Newsletter (SDCN), Oct 2011
  • Quarter sessions papers QS 4/32, QS 1/92/8, West Yorkshire Archives, Wakefield

Greenbank:

  • Earby Chronicles (Earby and District Local History Society) (EC), Summer 2012
  • Ingleton Parish Register
  • The National Archives ASSI 41/5, 42/8, 45/29/1/69-72

Craven:

  • Coldham, P.W., Bonded passengers to America. Genealogical Pub. Co. Inc. Baltimore 1983
  • Leeds Mercury, 28 Mar and 11 Apr 1769
  • The National Archives ASSI 45/29/2

Eglin/Buck:

  • Horton Parish Register
  • Levenson, T., Newton and the counterfeiters. Faber and Faber 2009
  • North Craven Heritage Trust Journal (NCHTJ) 2013
  • Pennant T., A tour from Downing to Alson-Moor. London 1801
  • Stockdill, R., Crag coiners. www.mytholmroyd.net/features/coiners.html
  • Styles, J., Our traitorous money makers: the Yorkshire coiners and the law 1760-1783. In An ungovernable people ed Brewer, J., and Styles, J. Hutchinson 1980
  • The National Archives ASSI 445/31/1/30-42A, 42/8, 41/6

Braithwaite:

  • Leeds Mercury 8 Aug 1786
  • SDCN Apr 2012
  • The National Archives ASSI 45/35/3/30-33, 41/8,42/10

Crook:

  • EC Summer 2015
  • Leeds Intelligencer, July 1795
  • The National Archives ASSI 45/38/3/31-32A, 105

Hunter/Mason:

  • Lancaster Gazette, 17 Aug 1816, 12 Apr 1823
  • Leeds Mercury, 3 Aug 1816, 29 Mar 1823
  • Quarter sessions papers QS 7/1-2, West Yorkshire Archives, Wakefield
  • SDCN Oct 2013
  • The National Archives ASSI 41/11-12, 45/56
  • Turner, J. H., Annals of Wakefield House of Correction, Bingley 1904

Metcalfe:

  • Ancestors Magazine, Feb 2004, Feb 2005
  • Leeds Mercury, 4 Aug 1827
  • The National Archives ASSI 41/14, 45/60, HO 11/6

Hartley/Thackwray:

  • Leeds Mercury, 8 Mar 1841
  • The National Archives ADM 101/7/8, 101/74/4/2

Hodgson/Jaques:

  • Liverpool Mercury, 9 Dec 1851
  • York Herald, 13 Mar 1852

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