The numbers of individuals indicted and brought before Hampshire Quarter Sessions for grand larceny [theft of personal property worth more than a shilling] increased during the period 1778 to 1786. In 1778 only one man was indicted for grand larceny and his case was not heard at the Quarter Sessions, but passed to the Assizes. As the period progressed, more grand larceny cases came before the Quarter Sessions bench and referrals to the Assizes decreased. By the second half of this eight-year period Hampshire Quarter Sessions were dealing with indictments for grand larceny against 30 or 40 individuals each year.
The growth in crime after the recent war and the ending of transportation to North America both during and after the War of Independence created serious overcrowding in gaols. Transferring some cases from the twice-yearly Assizes to Quarter Sessions reduced the length of pre-trial imprisonment since Quarter Sessions were held every three months rather than every six. At Winchester this move may have also alleviated overcrowding by distributing the prisoners more evenly between the county goal and the bride well. By 1819 Assize prisoners were held in the county goal, whereas the bride well keeper claimed ‘a great number of untried prisoners for the Sessions; the whole of the prisoners that are committed for the Sessions I have in my custody’.
There was also a change in procedure. Hampshire Quarter Sessions seemed hesitant to make charges for grand larceny in the early years of the period I am discussing and often valued goods so that offences constituted petty larceny. As the cut-off point between petty and grand larceny was one shilling, many goods were valued at 10d. Similarly, in 1779 and 1780, one handkerchief and three handkerchiefs, one pair of worsted stockings and four pairs of stockings, and 21b lead and 901b of lead were all valued separately at 10d. Perhaps the most blatant case of making the value fit the definition of petty larceny occurred in 1782 when ’22 silver buttons, one black coarse gown, one pair of stays, one apron, a check shirt, two black silk handkerchiefs and 101bs of tallow’ were collectively valued at 10d. Later in the period I am discussing, when Quarter Sessions were dealing with more cases of grand larceny than petty larceny, valuations were more varied – and perhaps more realistic. For example, one handkerchief was valued at sixpence, three handkerchiefs at two shillings, a shirt at one shilling and a pair of breeches at two shillings.
transportation to North America
Who was convicted?
Those indicted for petty larceny were a little less likely to be convicted (36 per cent) than those indicted for grand larceny (41 per cent), and although the punishments handed down on conviction for both grand and petty larceny could be identical, the punishments were generally lighter for those convicted of petty larceny. Some groups of offenders were seemingly less likely to be convicted. Gentlemen, yeomen and farmers all appeared less often at Hampshire Quarter Sessions but, if indicted, they were more often acquitted. Only 13 per cent of yeomen or farmers indicted during the period were found guilty, perhaps suggesting that the juries were reluctant to convict a yeoman unless absolutely certain of his guilt. It is possible that more men of some social status were wrongly accused, but closer examination of the cases reveals ‘guilty’ pleas by all but one of the successfully prosecuted yeomen. Perhaps the ‘very long trial’ of Henry Clift, the only yeoman to be tried for larceny and plead guilty also indicates that jury’s desire to be particularly sure of the facts in these cases.
Juries seemed to have no hesitation, however, in convicting women, some 38 per cent of whom were found guilty. Mariners suffered the highest conviction rate of all, at 47 per cent. Having been convicted, were these same groups of offenders liable to harsher punishments? Was judgement determined by the severity of their crimes, or by the whim of individuals on the bench?
Next month: The fascinating results of a full analysis of the punishments ordered for those convicted of larceny and assaults. What determined the sentence, be it a public or private whipping, imprisonment, transportation or hard labour? Were some groups shown more leniency than others?