Rogues, Thieves and the Rule of Law: The problem of law enforcement in northeast England. (Reviews).
The social history of crime is a vibrant area of intellectual enquiry, which since the 1960s has generated a proliferation of monographs and essays on a diversity of issues. There has been, however, a dearth of enquiry into criminal activity and law enforcement in northeast England. Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton's contribution is an ambitious attempt to readdress this imbalance. Rogues, Thieves and the Rule of Law is the first large-scale investigation into gendered criminality and law enforcement in the old counties of northeast England, (Durham, Northumberland and Newcastle upon Tyne), between the years of the 1718 Transportation Act and the early nineteenth-century. This historical period is one of the most symbolic in criminal justice history for the foundations of the modern legal system were being laid. Morgan and Rushton's meticulous attention to source material, however, illustrates the unique, yet diverse, character of criminal and civil law that persisted across these three northeastern administra tive units into the nineteenth-century. Significantly this did not preclude justices co-operating with colleagues both within the region and in the capital on penal policy. Local justices, for instance, collaborated with Bow Street under Sir John Fielding in the 1760s to apprehend criminals in their environs and some years later supported his initiative for a national criminal register. Local officials were prolific too in petitioning central government for pardons and reprieves for the condemned.
Morgan and Rushton succeed admirably in restoring women to their rightful place in histories of crime whilst also overcoming the difficulties that blight comparisons of rural and urban crime during the eighteenth-century. In so doing they nuance the genders' differential experience of socio-economic conditions prevailing in countryside and town and how that affected their patterns of offending and the prosecution process. This is possible because the authors' innovative step of embracing a feminist perspective to analyse a wide range of judicial records elucidates both males and females in their multiple roles as victims and perpetrators of a whole gamut of criminal activity. Such an epistemological approach to crime and penology is undoubtedly one of the study's major strengths. For although historians such as John Beattie, Peter King, Malcolm Feeley and Deborah Little have turned serious scholarly attention to gendered crime and sentencing policy in past societies, such issues rarely receive the attention t hey deserve.
Scrutiny of the overall pattern of crime and social disorder across the northeastern landscape reveals that it was blatantly at odds with the wild and uncivilised reputation of its people. Instead the crime rate corresponds to national trends in that much of the courts' criminal business comprised minor property offences, interspersed with the odd crime considered serious such as violent robbery or homicide. The authors reveal that law enforcers faced an urban concentration of crime that was decidedly female in composition, with its increase accompanied by a decline in rural crime throughout the century. This, in part, is attributed to the rise of consumerism and the higher levels of poverty prevailing in the towns. Newcastle, the metropolis of the northeast, was the most violent environ with higher rates of homicides and assaults than either Durham or Northumberland. Its machinery of law enforcement also encountered rates of property offences that exceeded local levels, although its pattern of minor thefts, such as picking pockets or the theft of cloth, were similarly rife in neighbouring urban communities.
The courts' overall pattern of prosecuting thieves parallel John Beattie and Robert Shoemaker's findings for Essex, Sussex and Surrey in that the number of persons proceeded against reached a peak in the 1780s and by the end of the century the figure was double that for the 1720s or 1730s. The aggregate figure of roughly 4,400 prosecutions, however, for 1718-1800 is much lower than found in London or its surrounding counties. Women were accused of 38 percent of thefts reported in the region, but behind this rather bland figure lie some interesting geographical variations in the sex ratios of the accused. Women were statistically more likely than men to be convicted of property crimes in Newcastle and Berwick's quarter sessions, whereas in Durham and Northumberland's rural communities they were in the substantial minority. The authors' speculation that women's higher conviction rate stemmed form men's greater experience of the law in their communities accords much with the reviewer's research into personal vio lence in Sunderland after 1840.
The reader also gains a vivid insight into the changing repertoire of punishments inflicted on wrongdoers by northeastern courts in early modern society. The death penalty, which was reserved for the few, had a paradoxical application across the region for although women were rarely sent to the gallows, they were more likely than men to suffer the additional degradation of having their bodies dissected. London judges were swift to introduce new policies of punishments, such as transportation, but it was primarily the lower courts that developed innovative variations in punishments. Particularly striking is the quarter sessions sentencing policy as it reveals women's pattern of offending exerted an uncanny influence over innovations in punishment, most notably imprisonment. The justices' use of medieval punishments hand-in-hand with modern penal practices also challenges much earlier writing on the history of crime and its adherence to simplistic linear models of developments in penalogical theory and practice in the eighteenth-century. The authors demonstrate that the pillory underwent a revival after 1750 to punish sexual assault, homosexuality and deceit, while the stocks were still used in Berwick until the mid nineteenth-century. The notebook of Edmund Tew, Rector of Boldon and JP for Durham, most lucidly illustrates the informal methods used to uphold local definitions of the law without recourse to the courts.
A large-scale regional study of crime and penalogy cannot dedicate equal resources to pursue all legal narratives. The theme of gender and violence is particularly under explored for it leaves many questions unanswered on how the law, both official and extra-legal, regulated inter-personal violence. This is a minor criticism, however, of a study that has achieved notable advances over recent scholarship in the social history of crime and contributed much to regional history. As this seminal study is also written with the clarity and simplicity that one expects from, but rarely finds, in specialist texts on criminal justice history, undergraduate students and non-specialists need not be intimidated nor deterred from consulting it. This leads me onto a moot point however; available only in hardback and retailing at around [pounds sterling]55 means that this potentially large audience is unlikely to benefit from the book's publication.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2001|
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